Book Excerpt: Mediterranean Bread Recipe

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The Food and Feasts of Jesus
Inside the World of First Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes
By Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh

How to Bake the Bread Recipes in This Book

Bread can be a joy to bake. The smell of baking bread fills your house with the most amazing and inviting perfume. Watching a mass of dough and water rise and turn into delicious brown loaf is fulfilling. And the loaf you made yourself always seems particularly tasty. For the beginner, however, the idea of making bread can be daunting. We are offering several suggestions that should make the experience more rewarding.

We use a heavy-duty kitchen mixer (KitchenAid) with a dough hook to make our bread. Of course you may make the dough without this or any other machine. It simply assists with the initial process of mixing and kneading the dough. If you use an electric bread machine, we suggest that you remove the dough after the first rise cycle and finish the bread by hand. Be forewarned that we both wore out several bread machines before switching to the mixers.

The bread recipe in this chapter is our standard and can be used with all the menus in this book. Even though first-century cooks used starters that consisted of dough from the previous day, we suggest you use yeast, especially if you are a beginner. These recipes recommend fast-rising dry yeast. We use either Red Star or Fleischmann's fast-acting yeast and have used both for years with good results. If you want to bake a loaf that uses a starter, then try the recipe for Barley and Wheat Bread in chapter 7.

Yeast is a living organism that feeds on starches and sugars. As the yeast feeds, there is fermentation, and carbon dioxide is released. This gas is trapped in the dough creating small bubbles. The gas bubbles are what cause the bread to rise. However, you should be aware that salt kills yeast. Make sure, as you start your dough, that you keep the salt and yeast separate. If not, you will be very dissatisfied with the way your bread rises.

Use exact measurements. Use dry measuring cups to measure the dry elements, like the flour, and liquid measuring cups for the liquids. When measuring flour, we use a smaller measuring cup to fill the larger one so that the flour is not compacted by scooping with the larger cup. Then we use a chopstick or the back of a knife to scrape across the top of the cup to remove the excess.

We tell you to use exact measurements, and now we warn you of exceptions. Factors beyond your control, like the weather and humidity, can impact your dough. If it is raining outside, you may need to use a little extra flour. If you are experiencing a drought, you may need more water. With a little experience, you will know after a few minutes of mixing or kneading whether to add more flour or a little more water. The dough should be spongy to the touch. If the dough is dry and hard, add more water. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour. Leave the dough alone if it is only slightly sticky and spongy. Add only small amounts of flour and water at a time when making adjustments.

The temperature will also impact the speed that your dough rises. The ideal room temperature for the dough to rise is 80 degrees. If your kitchen is cooler, the dough will rise slower and may need an extra twenty or so minutes. The process can be accelerated if the dough is placed in an oven for the first rise. Turn your oven on "preheat" for one minute. Then turn it off and it is ready for your dough.

For these recipes, we recommend that you cook the bread directly on a pizza stone, on oven tiles or on a baking sheet. Again, we recommend that if you use the baking sheet that you have heavy-duty industrial aluminum pans. The thin cookie sheets you might have purchased years ago at a grocery store typically do not heat evenly and will not stand up under the high temperatures required for making this type of bread. Cheap pans will also cause your bread to bake unevenly and burn on the bottom.

Always cool your bread on a rack for several hours before cutting and eating. If you do not have a cooling rack, you can use a rack taken from the oven or the grate over the burner of a gas stove. Bread left to cool on a flat surface will be soggy on the bottom. We know from personal experience that you will be sorely tempted to eat your bread as soon as it is taken from the oven. However, the bread will still be cooking and forming on the inside. Fight temptation and wait. If temptation is too great, then wait at least fifteen to twenty minutes. Your bread will continue to give off moisture for another six to eight hours. We suggest you leave the bread on a rack or store it in paper sacks during this time. This process is called curing the bread. After eight hours, your bread can be wrapped in plastic without the crust becoming soggy. It will remain delicious for days and will keep for a week. If you wrap your bag in plastic before it has time to cure, then the excess moisture trapped inside will cause the bread to mold in a couple of days.