After the past several years, more and more grocery stores and bakeries have been selling "artisan bread." Do a search for "artisan bread cookbook" and you will get over 300,000 Google entries. Do the same at Amazon, and you'll get more than 3,000 books available with artisan bread in the title.
So what exactly is "artisan bread?" Back to the search engines, where the definitions seemed endless. Sometimes it's the recipe, often just water, flour, salt, and yeast--or not even yeast, just a variety of starters. Sometimes it's the method, often requiring many days of stirring, proofing, pushing down--careful, some will warn you, the old-fashioned "punching down" of dough is really very bad; just push lightly.
With world-famous chefs and wonderful bakeries all promoting "artisan bread," I began to wonder if what I have been doing lately could also fit into that definition. Comparing my loaves to the ones in the fresh bakery sections of the various grocery stores in town (and at least one bakery as well), I think I can include what I am doing in the artisan bread category.
So here is a method rather than a recipe.
I still am having trouble getting a recipe down to the exact measurements I need to include here on the blog. (In case you have ever wondered, every single recipe I include here has been carefully measured and tested to be sure it can be easily duplicated by anyone reading the recipe.) I still tend to put water or milk in my favorite bowl "up to about here" and then measure the salt like my Mom did, with a few little piles in my palm. Sometimes there will be eggs, sometimes not, sometimes more sugar or oil than others, and then there are all the many kinds of grains that might be added in with the bread flour.
What I would like to stress today is that you can take probably any yeast bread recipe you may already be using and make it more "artisan-like," with the interesting crust and shape that matches what many of the bakeries and stores are selling at premium prices. (I have not yet tried this with frozen bread dough, but I expect you could get good results with that as well.)
Artisan Bread Method
1. Prepare your yeast bread dough to the point where it is ready to shape.
2. Meanwhile, spread some canola or olive oil lightly on a flat cookie sheet. Then, shake a few teaspoons of masa harina on the oil and shake the pan to spread the masa evenly.
(NOTE: You can use regular corn meal, yellow or white, instead of the masa, but I have found that masa gives exactly the right crust for our household. In fact, I buy masa harina expressly for this use.)
3. Start with a loaf-sized lump of dough (If you have a scale, you may want to measure out about a pound of dough). Begin to shape it into a long rope, perhaps about 3 inches or so in diameter. twist the dough slightly and, when it is an even tube shape, lay it on the prepared pan.
4. Using kitchen shears (or a knife if you don't have good shears), cut the dough in regular "slices" along the length of the loaf.
Round the tops of the slices slightly, if needed.
5. Allow the loaves to raise as usual and bake at 350 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes.
If you like having sesame or poppy seeds on your loaves, use a small amount of water to moisten the loaves at the end of step 4. Then sprinkle with the desired seeds. (If you wish, you can even brush the loaves with a little beaten egg yolk. The loaves will have a slightly firmer, shinier crust, but I usually skip the elaborateness of this step.)
That's it. Nothing really difficult, but the crust that you will develop in this way will be very different from a loaf made of the same dough but baked in the typical bread loaf pan. If in doubt, bake half the dough with this method and half in a "bread loaf" pan. Both can be good, but there is a very different quality--one that I find many prefer--with the "artisan" approach.