I like to cook, Pseudonymous Kid likes my cooking (in fact, he prefers it to eating out and actively complains on the nights I say we’re getting takeout or going to a restaurant), and I’m pretty good at it. Somehow this year my cooking stepped up a couple of notches, too, and I can’t remember the last time I made something disappointing: I finally seem to have mastered a broad enough range of techniques and gotten a good command of flavor profiles, enough that I can reliably wander into the kitchen, decide what the backbone of the meal will be (pork chops? Pasta? Rice?) and just start gathering things and deciding how I want the end result to taste (North Africanish? Mediterranean? bright and tangy? complex and earthy?) and pull it off. I am proud of this.
The thing that got me started cooking many years ago, though, was baking. I really like baking. And a couple of years ago I got started with this Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day thing, and I am telling you: it is true, and it is a total game-changer.
Let me start by saying, you really should buy the book, and the follow-up, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which has a lot of whole-grain recipes. But I will tell you–from memory, because it is that easy–how to do the most basic, simple bread in the first book, which is what I use for our basic every day bread and, as one of my staple quick dinners, the dough for pizza.
Get a big tupperware-type container, one that holds like 4-5 quarts. Pour in three cups of warm water, add a tablespoon and a half of yeast and the same amount of salt. Measure out 6 1/2 cups of flour (I tend to be scant with the cups, because since you’re doing this by volume not weight, you’re better off with a dough that’s a little loose than one that’s too dense ime). Stir the whole thing up with a butter knife (which will cut through the thick dough more easily than a spoon).
That literally takes like five minutes. If you have a kid who wants to help in the kitchen, they can do this part, though they might spill some flour. But if you do it regularly, they can totally contribute to one of your staple family “chores” in a substantive way.
Then put the lid on loosely and leave the dough for a couple of hours. Like, if you’re doing this at dinner time, leave it out until bedtime, or if you’re doing it in the morning, leave it out til you go back into the kitchen at lunch. The dough will rise and then collapse a bit. At that point, snap the lid tight and put it in the fridge.
The next day, when you want some dough, get out a cookie sheet or some parchment paper. If you’re using a sheet, sprinkle either corn meal or oat bran or some other fairly gritty dry thing on the pan (this is so the bread will not stick to the pan, so sprinkle heavily; any leftover you can wipe back into the corn meal or oat bran container after the bread goes into the oven). Heavily flour your hands and the part of the dough you’re going to grab, and use another butter knife to cut off about 1/4th of the dough volume. Shape it into a ball-type shape and put it down on the cornmeal covered cookie sheet or the parchment paper. (I recommend a cookie sheet for bread, and parchment paper for pizza; you’ll see why in a minute.)
If you want it to be bread, slash the top of the ball a few times with a serrated knife (this is to help the bread expand as it bakes, and so it looks pretty), set the timer for 15 minutes and walk away.
If you want it to be pizza, flour the top again and roll it out with a rolling pin to about 12-15 inches. Pour some olive oil on the rolled-out dough and spread it around to coat the dough, using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon or your hands. (If you use your hands, you will obviously need to wash them afterwards, but that’s not difficult.) Then put your pizza toppings on the pizza: I’ll put some ideas below. Basically preparing the pizza takes about the same 15 minutes as letting the bread sit.
When the timer goes off (if it’s bread) or when you’re done prepping the pizza (if it’s pizza), turn the oven on to 400 degrees. You want the oven to contain another cookie sheet or, if you’re fancy, a baking stone so that the surface the bread will bake on will be HOT when you actually put the bread in. Otherwise the bread will stick, but a hot surface will cook the bottom immediately and the bread won’t stick. On the bottom of the oven you want a metal roasting pan, something with an edge on it so that you can pour water in to steam the bread later (you don’t need this for pizza, but mine lives on the bottom of the oven regardless b/c this whole process makes breadmaking so easy we make all our bread now). Don’t use glass, b/c a glass pan will break if you pour cold water into it when it’s hot! (For the same reason, if you decide to splurge and buy a baking stone? Make sure never to get it wet when it’s hot.)
Set the timer for another 15 minutes or so to let the oven heat up, and because 15/15/15/15 is easy to remember.
When the timer goes off a second time, it’s time to put the bread/pizza in the oven. If it’s bread, you’re going to use the cookie sheet the bread is on as a kind of big spatula; transfer it onto the hot sheet in the oven with a quick jerk, and assuming that you put enough corn meal under the bread, the transfer should be clean. If it’s not clean, your bread loaf will be a bit of a weird shape, but that’s not the end of the world. Mistakes happen.
If you’re doing pizza, though, in my experience it is impossible to do a clean jerk with a fully-laden pizza, so instead I just use the parchment paper the pizza is sitting on to pull it onto a clean cookie sheet, then use that sheet to transfer to the hot sheet in the oven parchment paper and all. Parchment paper is non-stick and thin enough that the hot sheet will still cook the bottom of the pizza quickly, so just let the pizza cook on the parchment paper in the oven. The paper will probably brown around the edges, which is no biggie.
Set the timer for another 15 minutes.
When the timer goes off for the third time, if you are making bread, fill some kind of pouring container (I use an empty wine bottle) with water, open the door real quick, pour the water into the roasting pan on the bottom of the oven, and close the door. The steam will help the bread form a nice crispy “artisan” type crust. Try to do this as quickly as possible so that the oven temperature doesn’t drop. If you are making pizza, have a look at the pizza to make sure the cheese isn’t burning; if it is, maybe turn the oven down a bit.
Set the timer for another 15 minutes.
When the timer goes off, your pizza or bread is done.
This all sounds more complicated than it really is when you’ve done it a couple times, so here is the real short version:
Dough: 3 cups warm water, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast, 6 1/2 cups flour.Let it sit for a couple hours, til it rises and collapses a bit again, then put it in the fridge.
Bread: cover a baking sheet with oat bran or corn meal, flour your hands and the dough, cut off 1/4 of the dough volume, roll it into a ball, put it on the bran-or-meal-covered sheet. Slice the top.
Pizza: same thing, but put the dough onto a sheet of parchment paper instead of a baking sheet and instead of slicing, roll the dough out (use more flour so it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin). Spread olive oil on the top and then make pizza.
Baking: 15 minutes to rest (or prepare the pizza); 15 minutes to heat the oven (with baking sheet inside); 15 minutes to bake without steam; 15 minutes to bake with steam.
If you’re doing pizza, you can just set the timer for 30 minutes baking, obvs. 20 might be enough, but surprisingly I have found that even though the dough is thinner, it still requires the same baking time. Probably b/c stuff on it keeps it wetter longer.
Sprinkling the olive oil with a seasoning mix–Italian, Greek, “pizza mix,” etc–can kick up the flavor, but is not necessary.
For tomato sauce, you can just use bottled marinara or pasta sauce, or plain bottled crushed tomatoes (in which case the seasoning mix really does help). Or you can not do sauce. Or you can use bottled alfredo-style sauce or make a white sauce, which is basically a roux with garlic to which you add milk, parmesan, and oregano or basil or whatever. There’s a recipe at the link if “roux with garlic and milk and parmesan” doesn’t make sense to you.
Toppings: my kid likes sliced salami; I really like mushrooms, which you can buy pre-sliced, thus making it super easy. Goat cheese is grand. Another family favorite is olives, preferably real ones (i.e., the greek kind–pitted and either cut in half or put on there whole). Sliced multi-color bell peppers look nice. Pre-grated mozzarella makes cheese toppings easy, and there’s even grated soy mozzarella for the non-dairy types like my husband.
Greek Pizza: greek seasoning, olives, crumbled feta and bell peppers.
Potato pizza: no sauce, rosemary sprinkled heavily over the olive oil, and thinly-sliced potatoes and red onions (use the slicing side of a box grater to do thin slices really quickly).
Chicken and garlic pizza: Crushed or thinly-sliced garlic on white sauce, and grill a chicken breast, then slice it and put it on top. (I often grill an extra breast or two if I’m cooking chicken, then slice the breasts and freeze the slices, which makes chicken pizza even easier.) Broccoli is yummy with chicken, too.
BBQ Chicken: use bbq sauce instead of white sauce, or use tomato sauce and mix the sliced chicken with a cup or so of bbq sauce before putting it on the pizza. This is also yummy with sliced or diced red onions and cilantro.
Basically one of the things I love about doing pizza is that a cup or so of pretty much any kind of leftover–random chicken breast? pepper starting to wizen? couple of meatballs? A carrot?-can be sliced up and made into a pizza. Interesting looking goodies at the grocery store–peppered goat cheese? a small jar of roasted peppers? artichoke hearts? capers? fresh mozarella–work great, too, and you don’t have to figure out a “recipe” for them.
And the clean up is super easy. Throw the parchment paper away or reuse it if it’s not too burned, wash a cookie sheet and the pizza slicer and maybe a knife, and you’re done.