There is nothing like a warm loaf of Italian bread on the dinner table – in addition to the aroma it sends through the house while baking.
Growing up, my Saturday mornings consisted of cleaning, food shopping and playing poker for pennies with my grandfather, followed by watching wrestling on television. Then my mother and I would head home to start baking.
She would get a 5-pound bag of flour, and together we would create six or seven loaves of bread, a tray of breadsticks, three or four pizzas and some fried dough, or zeppole, and still have some dough left over to put in the freezer for a quick pizza during the week. It’s extremely economical, considering that a 5-pound bag of flour costs around $3 and yeast is about $1.50.
Italians love bread, and I cannot recall a meal without it on the table. Actually, my father insisted on fresh bread – he’d complain a little if it was more than a day old, so to keep him happy we’d bake a lot of bread. In Italy, day-old bread never makes it to the table; instead it is fed to the chickens in the back yard.
Making bread dough is probably most fun for the kids. They love the rubbery texture of the dough, and my two boys love pounding out the dough as well. Bertucci’s restaurant on the East Coast gives kids bread dough to play with instead of crayons and paper. It’s so great to watch kids play with this play-dough original.
Our Simply Italian bread recipe is one of those “make it once and you’ll make it again and again” recipes.
Simply Italian Bread
Yield: 2 loaves
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 3/4 cups warm water, divided use
1 teaspoon salt
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Extra-virgin olive oil
Optional: 1/2 cup Spanish olives, chopped (see cook’s note)
Cook’s note: Try adding 1/2 cup of chopped Spanish olives kneaded into the dough – it’s my favorite and gives the loaf an extra, salty bite.
1. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup of warm water. Let stand about 10 minutes, until the yeast gets foamy. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups water and the salt.
2. Add the flour, slowly, one cup at a time, mixing by hand until it becomes a ball of dough. Then take the dough out of the bowl and place it on a floured wooden board and knead for about 10 minutes. Next, coat the inside of a large bowl – deep enough for the dough to double in size – with olive oil. This is where the dough will rest to rise.
3. Place the ball of dough into this bowl and roll it around so it is coated entirely in the olive oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Use 3 or 4 kitchen towels to blanket the dough to keep it warm. Do not disturb the dough at this point. Allow it to rise – at least 5 to 6 hours, even 8 hours if possible. I usually make the dough before going to bed and let it rise overnight. In the morning the dough is ready to go.
4. Oil two loaf pans well on the bottom and sides.
5. Once the dough has at least doubled in size, cut in half so that you have two loaves. From here you can make bread, breadsticks, fried dough, pizza, calzone or even freeze some to use later. Knead each piece separately on a floured surface and then place it in its own greased loaf pan. Add chopped olives, if using. Cover again with towels and allow to rise for a few more hours. It is then ready to bake.
6. Brush the top with olive oil and bake at 375 degrees 25-30 minutes. The first time you bake bread, you’ll need to keep an eye on it because every stove varies. The bread should be a light golden brown when it’s ready.
7. Remove from the oven and let the loaf rest for 5 minutes before cutting into it. Slice with a serrated knife. Spread some creamy butter on and enjoy!
By Rosemaria Altieri
Follow Rosemaria on Instagram @RosemariaBeauty