This story starts with a chance acquisition - as do so many things in life. A 25 cent purchase of a book from the Halifax Public Libraries Book sale in 2008. It's a book called 'Cooking across America' by Bernard Clayton. I love the premise of this book: Bernard Clayton packs up wife and dog in camper van and travels across the United States ( and even ventures into Canada...), arrives in towns and quickly susses out who cooks well...and then proceeds to get their story and recipes. I have to say that everything I have ever tried from this book has been fantastic - Max's Loaf, Grandmother's Cinnamon Buns (my staple for fund raisers) - the Key Lime pie - all great! The secret is that you are using recipes that have been foolproof over time, absolutely tried and true.
Then I bought his bread and stews book and discovered that he is a bread fanatic! I found my current go-to loaf for when I have no time - which has literally changed my life! From start to finish - approximately 65 minutes - you make it while you make dinner! And this is what it looks like.....Mr. Clayton calls it Cuban bread. It says in the recipe that he used this recipe in his baking classes for beginners – specifically to show how quick and easy it is to make good bread!
Twenty-two years ago, I decided to try to always make the bread for the household and I've been doing it ever since - with more or less success, sometimes delicious, sometimes not so much. When our kids arrived, I continued - thinking to myself that this was one staple in the household whose ingredients were completely under my control. It seemed that knowing the ingredients in the toast was certainty in a chaotic world! In all these years I've found all the idiosyncrasies of bread-making: they exist to humble you when you think you've got it all figured out!
I've had 2 bread machines in 22 years but I only use the dough setting and never use it to actually bake the loaf - not recommended unless you are desperate. Or I use my food processor to make the dough - either works perfectly.
Here is my version of the recipe for Cuban Bread by Bernard Clayton
4 cups flour (white or whole wheat of a combination of the two, whatever you have..)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 packages yeast (approx. 4.5 teaspoons)
2 cups of warm to hot water (between 120 and 130 degrees F)
approximately 1 more cup of flour
Plonk the first 4 ingredients in your machine and start mixing on the dough setting. Add the 2 cups of water and let it mix for a while until it becomes a wet but together ball. Stop the machine and start the dough setting again and this time add 1/4 of a cup at a time of your additional cup of flour and let it mix in - you are aiming for a soft yet elastic well formed ball of dough, slightly sticky, but not wet. If it is hard and dry, you have gone too far, which is why I caution you to add the additional flour sloooowly....
******An aside......this actually is the kernel of truth I've discovered in 20 years of haphazard bread making - ALWAYS allow time for the dough to absorb the flour. It takes time, and it is easy to add too much flour thinking that the dough is too wet. Then you end up with stiff, dry unresponsive dough that won't rise for you or be beautiful and it is difficult to have dry dough absorb more water!!!!!(Can't stress that enough)
Through kneading, even slightly too wet dough will become smooth and elastic and will blossom beautifully for you! Remember too that humidity will affect how much flour you need, so rely on your eyes and not the recipe...this holds true for all bread recipes, of course!*******
After you have added the flour that you think is appropriate, let the machine complete the first cycle of kneading. This should result in the smooth, elastic but soft ball referred to above. When the machine stops at the end of the first kneading cycle, turn it off.
Set your timer for 20 minutes, it will double in bulk during this short time.
Prepare your oven by setting a pan or tray of water on the lower shelf. I use a battered 9 by 13 pan I don't use for anything else. DON'T TURN ON THE OVEN!
When your timer goes off, haul out the dough, punch it down and divide in two. You have your choice of forms here: I have used this dough for boules (round loaves), bâtards, ( kind of a longer loaf, but short and stubby and cigar-shaped ) and even for 10 yummy hamburger buns.
Form 2 boules or 2 longer loaves and place on the sheet on parchment paper or a baking mat. Don't fuss about the shape, it is dough that is easy to from and seal - put the seam side down if you roll it. For the boules, use a razor to make 2 crossed deep slashes to allow the dough to expand. For the loaves, do 4 parallel slashes diagonally along the loaf.
How the slashes look after baking….
You don't have to allow rising time or oven preheating time, which is what makes this loaf so FAST. Put the sheet with the 2 loaves in the COLD oven (on top of your tray of water) and turn the oven to 400 degrees F (I use 380, because my oven runs very hot, but Mr. Clayton says 400... you can reduce it after 20 minutes or so if it seems too hot and the top is scorching!)
Check it after 20 minutes. At this point I usually reduce the temperature to 350 and continue the baking for another 20 or so minutes. You are aiming for well-browned, golden and glorious tops and bottoms. If the bottoms aren't browned, take the loaves off the baking sheet and put them directly on the oven shelves for the last 5-10 minutes.
Cool on a rack.....eat.....so good....
The above is my everyday loaf....if I have time and I have pre-planned correctly, I make this:
Known as No Knead Bread, it is fantastic, but doesn't always fit into your schedule :)
I planned this blog post as a tribute to Bernard Clayton, but sadly, when I wrote it I discovered that he died in March of 2011 at the age of 94. Still, I say thank you even though he is gone (and his questing bread spirit with him) and I wish I could write him a letter to tell him how much his bread recipes have meant to me (oh, yes - there are many more that are delicious in his books, and all have a fascinating heritage to relate....). Had Bernard Clayton been buried as an Egyptian Pharaoh, you can guarantee that he would have had a roomful of loaves to accompany him into the afterlife!
Thank you, Mr. Clayton!