It's the perfect time of year to bake bread
Last month's record-breaking polar vortex may be over, but it's very likely that the weather where you live is still keeping you in indoors on the weekends. It's a perfect time of year for cooking foods that warm you and sustain you. After all, in times past, when people wanted to chase away the cold they gathered around the glowing hearth.
I think the one cooking activity that most captures such old-fashioned pleasures of warming yourself by the fire is baking. Preparing bread itself is very pleasurable, causing you to slow down from the often-hectic pace of the week. Mixing, kneading and shaping dough feels therapeutic, like acts of meditation. Waiting for the dough to rise stretches out the day, while offering a perfect stretch of time to catch up on the newspaper, read a book, listen to music, play a game or have a conversation. The baking itself extends that beneficial down time even more.
Don't think I'm forgetting the pleasures of the bread. Beautifully browned and fragrant, crusty, chewy, tender and still warm from the oven, a loaf you've baked for yourself really can come to feel like the proverbial staff of life. It can also go on sustaining you for several days to come.
That's why I'm happy to share one of my favorite basic bread recipes. My French olive bread has the ability to transport you, at least in your imagination, to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, since it's flavored with black, briny, slightly chewy Nicoise olives. You can easily find them in jars -- or in service delis or serve-yourself olive-and-pickle bars -- in many well-stocked supermarkets.
You'll find the recipe surprisingly simple overall. To help you get the best results, though, it's important to stick carefully to the timing instructions for mixing and baking. I also suggest calibrating your oven by hanging an oven thermometer from the top rack, since the dials on most home ovens don't accurately match their internal cooking temperatures.
Speaking of equipment, you will also need a stand mixer to mix the dough easily; but I'm always surprised by how many home cooks have this versatile appliance now. And a baking stone, available in most cookware stores, helps ensure a good rise and nice crust like you'd get from a professional baking oven.
If the weather's still bad, you don't even need to venture out to buy these things. You can easily find all this equipment, even the Nicoise olives, online, have them delivered straight to your door.
FRENCH OLIVE BREAD
Makes 2 loaves, about 21 ounces each
5 cups (1.125 L) plus 2 teaspoons bread flour, plus extra for kneading