Nothing’s better than homemade bread. It doesn’t have to take all day, and you don’t even have to knead it. And there is no such thing as a failed loaf of bread. It may be a little dense or a little crumbly, but it’s homemade, and you can be sure that the next time you make it, it will be different. I lived in a flour mill for seventeen years and had buckets of stone-ground flour made by the miller, my husband. I made bread several times a week, and I never had a loaf turn out the same way twice. But they were all delicious.
When you live in France and you go back to the same boulangerie day after day, you learn to tell what’s going on in the baker’s life. Dense bread means he got up late, while undercooked bread means he forgot to turn the ovens on at 3 a.m. Slightly burned bread means he was distracted somehow, maybe arguing with his kids about getting out of bed, or perhaps his wife is fooling around.
One day in Coupiac, the new baker just closed his doors. Word got out that he’d had a nervous breakdown and was in the hospital in Toulouse, but that he would be back someday. The local grocery store quickly ordered bread from the Coupiagaise factory in Alban, put up a note that this was just temporary (in a small village, you don’t steal your friends’ business), and sold the crunchy, delicious bread that is famous in the region—and was actually better than the bread from the boulangerie.
After several months, the bakery reopened. The cash register was operated not by the baker’s wife but by an openly gay young man, who gave the baker a hug when he came in through the fly screen, almost knocking over the tray of steamy croissants he was carrying. (I went there for the croissants and sometimes yeast, not the bread.) The boulanger introduced his new partner and explained that Hélène, his ex, was now working at the local grocery store, which was still selling the Coupiagaise bread.
When you make your own bread at home, just the fragrance of the baking loaf will lift your spirits. You’re really not supposed to cut it when it just comes out of the oven, but of course you have to test it, cutting it with a very sharp knife and spreading a little butter on the first hot slice. Here’s my bread recipe, which has only four ingredients: the ones used in classic French bread.
An Easy Loaf of Bread
3 cups unbleached flour
1½ cups water
1 package active dry yeast
1½ teaspoons salt
Mix everything together in a big bowl. The dough it will be very sticky, but don’t worry; you aren’t going to knead it. Cover the bowl with a damp dish cloth and put it somewhere within view so you won’t completely forget about it. Then forget about it. The temperature for rising isn’t too important; room temperature is just fine. If you put the dough in a cooler place, it will take longer to rise, which improves the flavor. After an hour or two or three, push your knuckle into the dough. If the depression this makes doesn’t fill back in, you’re ready to form a loaf. If it does, wait a little longer until it doesn’t. Timing isn’t critical here.
When it’s ready, punch the dough down. Get a bread pan and grease it, then form the dough into something close to the shape of the pan, and put it in, uglier side down. You can use a little flour on your hands if it’s too sticky, but better yet, dip them in water. Better that the dough be too wet than too dry.
After about 45 minutes, preheat the oven to 400°F. Check on the dough by pushing your knuckle into the dough again; if the dent fills in quickly, let it rise some more. When it doesn’t fill in, it’s ready for the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 350°F and bake for another 45 minutes or so. The bread is ready when it easily plops out of the pan and sounds hollow when you knock on its bottom. When in doubt, put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes.
That’s it. You have bread.