Bread: the staff of life

food-img_1565Bread has been a food staple for thousands of years in one form or another, so I am perpetually stunned by people who say, “I don’t eat bread.”
Life is too short to deny such a simple pleasure.
Whether for weight control, health reasons or staying on trend, people seem to avoid bread — or at least talk about avoiding bread.
I was at a reception recently with a friend who ate a bagel for the first time in years. She practically collapsed in rapture as she enjoyed the chewy ring shmeared with the perfect amount of cream cheese.
Bread is a great addition to just about any meal. And the entire house smells wonderful as it bakes. As winter descends upon us, homemade bread is a nice way to generate some warmth.

Focaccia
Makes 2 loaves
I sent my son to the grocery store for flour. He returned with bread flour — which I learned through a quick Google search cannot be easily substituted for all-purpose flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content, which produces greater elasticity in the dough. This is ideal for bread or pizza, not so much for cookies or cakes.
I could not justify returning a bag of flour to the supermarket, so I was determined to use it. My husband had made a wonderful bean soup using smoked turkey bones, and homemade bread seemed a worthy contribution to the meal.
I looked at a couple of different versions, and came up with the following recipe. The topping was simple — salt, pepper and herbs — and complemented the rest of the meal nicely. But you could dress this up with any number of toppings, including pesto, olives, fresh herbs, roasted vegetables and crumbled cheese. The possibilities are nearly endless.
If you need only one, put the second lump of dough in a Ziploc bag in the fridge and baked it a few days later — it worked fine for me. If you plan to save it longer than a couple of days, freeze it. Either way, be sure to bring it up to room temperature and allow it to rise on the baking sheet before baking.
Ingredients
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
1¾ cups warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 cups flour
½ cup olive oil, divided
Coarse salt, pepper and herbs: rosemary/oregano/thyme

Directions
In a large mixing bowl, place the yeast, water, salt and sugar. Stir a few times to allow the yeast and sugar to dissolve.
Add the flour and ¼ cup oil and mix with a dough hook until blended. Knead with your hands a few times to pull the dough together into a large ball. Set it in a warm place and cover it with a towel.
Allow the dough rise for about an hour until doubled in size, then punch the dough down.
Divide the dough in half and place each half on an oiled cookie sheet.
Stretch the dough out into a rectangular form, approximately 12 inches by eight inches. Poke holes in the dough with a fork, and your fingers — this gives it the bumpy texture. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Leave the dough in a warm place for about 45 minutes until the dough rises again. Heat your oven to 425 degrees.
Sprinkle with the salt, fresh ground pepper and desired herbs, and bake for about 25 minutes until the bread is golden and crispy all over. Cut it with a pizza cutter or bread knife and serve warm with butter or additional olive oil.

Drop biscuits
Makes 12 large biscuits
These versatile biscuits are delightful with soup, vegetarian chili or a hearty egg breakfast. They are also nice spread with jam alongside a cup of tea. The trick is to use half cake flour, which produces a lighter, fluffier biscuit, and to avoid working the dough too much.
Ingredients
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk

Directions
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment.
Mix the butter, flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl until small crumbs form.
Add the buttermilk and mix it briefly with spoon. The dough should still be lumpy and a bit crumbly; the chunks of butter will produce air pockets during baking and make light, fluffy biscuits.
Drop the dough onto the parchment; for full-sized biscuits use ⅓-cup measure; for miniatures, use a heaping tablespoon.
Bake about 18 minutes for full size, 12 minutes for smaller biscuits. They should be golden on the outside and lightly crisped.

Beer bread
Makes 1 loaf
This ever-so-simple quick bread is a great accompaniment to any soup or stew. It is also superb sliced, toasted and slathered with butter for breakfast the next morning.
Ingredients
3 cups self-rising flour (or 3 cups all-purpose flour, 4½ teaspoons baking powder and ¾ teaspoon salt)
1 12-ounce bottle or can of beer — any type works
3 tablespoons sugar

Directions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a standard loaf pan (9 inches by 5 inches)
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar and beer with a wooden spoon.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake it for about 50 minutes until the top is crisp and lightly brown, and a toothpick comes out of the bread clean.
Rub the hot loaf with butter or margarine. Cool the loaf slightly, remove it from the pan, slice and serve.
Note: This is fabulous plain, but you can jazz it up with any of these:
¾ cup raisins or other dried fruit
¾ cup nuts or seeds of your choice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or pickled jalapeño
½ cup chopped olives
½ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes n

Keri White is a Philadelphia food writer.

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