Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nathan's Bake Shop Special- Skillet Bread

My recent experiment with the pitta con sarde has reignited my passion for baking. In a big way too. Nothing too easy like cupcakes and pies- and believe me, I was tempted to go there- but breads. Yeasty soft and pillowy doughs and crusty crunchy crusts. Herby savory loaves, spicy cinnamony rolls of heaven, vanilla glazes and melted butters. Bread is such a homey and comforting food and usually the first casualty of carb-cutting when people change their eating habits. 

We made one for dinner and one to go home
with Nathan
Some people are lucky enough to share their passion for food with close friends and family, and I'm happy to say I am among them. I've always loved cooking with my family. My oldest daughter and I used to hit the farmers market, the corn stand and the grocery store and then spend the day freezing veggies and meatballs. Year after year my kids and I made holiday treats and cookies and later my dear friend and almost sister Jessica and I held holiday baking marathons. My friend Katie and I often have all day cooking events- with and without kids. Some of the most precious times in my life are times spent cooking with my grandson Nathan. Our unlikely tradition began with a pan of nachos and has grown into something really special. Whenever we have a weekend together we plan to make something fun and tasty. Recently Nathan came to spend the night with me. Life has been a little chaotic for this young man recently and he needed a break from the daily grind and spend some time with Gramma.

We always start our plans with "what are we going to cook?" We had some trouble deciding this time! It's the end of summer, not quite autumn, still warm out, not cool and breezy, too early for chili and stew. We had a tough time choosing and finally decided on fried chicken, but we knew early on we would be baking some homemade bread.

Living in the city I certainly have no problem locating beautiful breads. I don't have to do any baking, but where is the fun in that? Cooking, baking, and writing about it are hobbies to me just as much as knitting and painting and woodworking are hobbies to other people. I spend lots of hours reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows- always in a quest to learn new techniques, discover more flavors and interesting foods. Bread cookbooks have become my latest obsession and all that reading gives me ideas and inspiration and reason to play in the dough.

Like many people, for years I used a bread machine to make bread at home. I could grab a ready to go boxed mix or I could pull a book off the shelf and throw the ingredients into the machine and let it do all the work for me. Certainly this was a convenient way to have home baked bread but it didn't really challenge me or test my baking ability. I got a hot, fresh, but oddly square loaf. I was always yearning for something a little more handcrafted. When The Chef and I left the lake house and made the migration back to civilization, we left the bread machine behind as well.

Exact measurements are so important.
Cooking with Nathan is as much a learning experience for me as it is for him. He learned that the bread rises and become fluffy and filled with tiny air pockets because of that living thing in an envelope called yeast. I learned that the envelopes are really full of thousands and thousands of teeny tiny zombies that come back to life when you add warm water. Nathan learned about cast iron skillets, and why we oil them after using them and how they last for many many years. I learned that mixing bread dough by hand is actually way more fun than breaking out the Kitchenaid, especially when poofs of flour floof all over the counter and make you bust out laughing. 

We talked about different kind of pans, like loaf pans and muffin pans, and different kinds of bread, like banana bread and cinnamon bread and bread with strawberries and peanut butter mixed in the dough (Nathan's recipe) and why baking bread in a skillet is actually a pretty cool way to make bread.

Which brings me to this fantastic recipe. You might remember the Dutch oven bread recipe a while back- this one is a similar style, also baked in cast iron, but not in a covered Dutch oven. The dough in the Dutch oven bread is a no-knead bread, which is the easiest thing ever invented, and is so versatile. It looks like a sourdough loaf if you use white flour. Add some herbs and grated cheese and you get a savory loaf packed with flavor. Want a cinnamon bread? Mix up a small dish of cinnamon sugar and add the dough to the skillet in small amounts, sprinkling with cinnamon sugar mixture to make a swirled sweet loaf. 

Cast Iron Skillet Bread

4 cups flour (all purpose or whole wheat)
1 packet active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups warm water
olive oil, for the skillet
topping of choice

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, salt and yeast. If you are adding any herbs or grated cheese to your bread, this is the time to get it in the dough. Whisk it in thoroughly. For dried herbs, use about 2 teaspoons, fresh herbs, up to 1/4 cup minced. Grated cheese, keep it at 1/4 cup for dry grated cheese like Parmesan or 1/2 cup for cheddars and similar cheeses.

Mix in the warm water til the dough forms.

It looks a little rough, but trust us, it turns out perfect.
Pour the water over the flour and mix in with a wooden spoon and mix it in well. The dough will look a little rough but that's ok. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest and rise in a draft free spot for an hour.

Brush your cast iron skillet (I use a 10 inch skillet) with a little olive oil.

Our bread dough didn't slash so we just left it and
sprinkled on some flaked sea salt.

Flour your hands and sprinkle a little flour over the dough in the bowl. Use your fingers to work the dough out of the bowl and place it into the skillet shaping into a round loaf. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow the dough to rise one more time for half an hour.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Uncover the dough and brush with a little additional olive oil or melted butter. Slash the top decoratively and sprinkle with seeds, bits of grain such as hemp seed or oatmeal. I like to sprinkle a little flaked sea salt on top too for extra crunch.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the crust is deep golden brown. Remove the bread from the skillet and allow to cool on a rack. Slice and serve while still a little warm.

Baking bread like this is so easy and doesn't require all kinds of kneading and shaping and multiple rising and specialty pans. Just basic ingredients and that old cast iron skillet. It's not unthinkable to have freshly baked bread on the table for dinner, even on a weeknight, and where many bread recipes are an exact science, these easy recipes do allow some room for playing- with flavor and textures. This is also a great way to get kids interested in their food and learning to make some of the basics we take for granted from scratch. It's fun and better for all of us.

Disclaimer- this recipe is a close variation of numerous published recipes, none of which I own or claim to have written. This particular combination of ingredients works perfectly for me, and I have shared it with you.

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