While the word "slab" doesn't exactly make me think of fragrant, delicious bread, these slabs are exactly that. If this is any indication, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
This is the only recipe I've ever made from instant yeast that yields results similar to artisan bread made from a sourdough starter. Usually, bread made from instant yeast is fairly flavorless, with a dense, closed-crumb texture. I thought it was impossible to create the wonderful flavor, texture, and complexity of artisan bread using instant yeast.
I was wrong. Maggie Glezer, author of Artisan Baking, has shown me the light. It is possible to make wonderful artisan bread with instant yeast -- but it's not magic. It takes time and effort, just as it does with wild yeast. To achieve the same results, long, slow fermentation is necessary with instant yeast, just as it is with wild. As Ed Wood, author of Classic Sourdoughs explains, "All bread was "sourdough" until bakers' yeast was developed to produce fast rising (short fermentation). With this fast rising yeast, the flavor of bread was essentially lost. Long fermentation is the secret to flavor in sourdough baking."
With Glezer's method, that long fermentation time is still there -- but using instant yeast, which saves the trouble of having to care for a living sourdough starter. Wild yeast takes a long time to do its work because there's fewer yeast cells by volume, whereas one little granule in a packet of instant yeast contains millions of yeast cells, which is why it works so quickly. BUT it's a long fermentation time that gives artisan bread its wonderful flavor -- good things do come to those who wait! The trick with using instant yeast, then, is to use very little and let what little you use have a good long time to do what those yeast cells were born to do (be fruitful and multiply).
We begin with a poolish (a spongy pre-ferment dough). This poolish is made from 1/16th of a teaspoon of instant yeast and takes 12 hours to mature. The total process to make the Acme herb slabs takes 23 hours, but only 40 minutes or so of active time (Maggie says 20, and maybe experienced bakers can do it in that time, but it took me closer to 40). Unfortunately, it's not like a slow cooker where you can set it and forget it. The active time is spread out in intervals, so you do have to plan to be around at certain points to do things. This makes it very difficult for those such as myself who work 9-5 hours at the office to make this bread on the weekdays, even with the long times between each rise.
It helps to have breadmaking tools: a stand mixer, a baker's couche, a pizza stone. I don't think the first two are strictly necessary -- the dough can be mixed/kneaded in a food processor or by hand, and you can knock together a faux couche fairly easily. The pizza stone, however, may or may not be required. The crust of the bread may not turn out quite as nicely without one. There's also a spray bottle, which I find very useful to create steam, and which can be easily obtained for little investment. A thermometer is also helpful to measure the temperature of the water.
When I cut into the bread for the first time, I was delighted by the crisp crust. But I didn't want to get my hopes up too high, because I've been tricked before (an online recipe for "French bread" using instant yeast -- it was terrible, but had many rave reviews; I can only feel sorry for those who actually consider that to be good bread). I could feel my hopes rise when I saw the crumb -- a fairly open crumb (holey), resembling my favorite kinds of sourdough. I was still skeptical when I took my first bite, fearing that I would get that same bland, instant-yeast flavor from the bread. I was ecstatic that instead, I tasted nothing but wonderful, yeasty bread. I didn't use enough rosemary so that particular flavor was fairly subtle. I think these slabs can be made with or without the addition of herbs.
Given the time investment, I probably won't be able to make this bread very often, but store-bought bread just can't compare. It's worth the time though if you're going to be staying in anyway; there's nothing quite like fresh, home-baked bread. It's satisfying to make, and even more satisfying to eat. It's best about 10 minutes out of the oven, when the crust is crisp and the middle is warm and chewy. Once you store it, the crust will soften. Just stick it back in a toaster oven for a few minutes to crisp up the crust again before eating -- it makes a big difference. My two favorite ways of enjoying this bread -- first, by dipping it into a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and kalamata olives, and second, by placing thin slices of white Irish cheddar on top to make open-faced sandwiches. Few things in life taste as good.
Acme's Herb Slabs (from Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer)
[My notes are in brackets, like this.]
Yield: 2 large flatbreads, just over 1 pound each
Time: About 23 hours, with 20 minutes of active work [It took me closer to 40 minutes.]
A stylized version of focaccia, this rosemary-flecked bread has an unusual crust. Just before baking, it is stippled all over, then baked for five minutes on one side. It is then flipped over to finish baking on the other side. This keeps the bread very flat and squared off, like a stone tablet.
The dough is based on a poolish and undergoes a stately fermentation and proof, giving it a very rich flavor. It is uncomplicated to make, and if started the evening before, it can be ready for dinner the next day.
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1 cup water, 110° to 115°F
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, preferably organic
1 1/2 cups water, lukewarm
Whisk the yeast into the 110° to 115°F water and let it stand for 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the yeasted water to the flour (to measure 1/16 teaspoon yeast), then beat in the lukewarm water. This will be a very gloppy batter. Cover the poolish with plastic wrap and let it ferment overnight for 12 hours, or until its bubbles are popping and the top is just starting to wrinkle and foam.
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, preferably organic
1 tbsp plus 1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1/4 tsp instant yeast
3/4 cup water, lukewarm
2 tbsp olive oil
For the dough (by stand mixer): Combine the flour, salt, rosemary, and yeast in the mixing bowl. Add the water and oil to the poolish and stir to loosen. Pour the poolish into the flour mixture. Mix with dough hook on low speed until a rough dough forms. Cover the bowl and let it rest for 10 minutes. Mix the dough another five minutes, until very smooth.
For the dough (by hand):
By hand, combine the flour, salt, rosemary and yeast in a large bowl. Add the water and oil to the poolish, stir to loosen it, and pour it all into the flour mixture. Stir the mixture with your hand until it forms a rough dough. Turn it out onto your work surface and knead it briefly, without adding extra flour, until it is well combined. Cover the dough with a bowl and let it rest for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to rehydrate. Knead the dough, without adding extra flour, until it is very smooth, about 10 minutes.
For the dough (by food processor):
Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in the workbowl fitted with the steel blade. Add the water and oil to the poolish, stir to loosen it, and pour it all into the flour mixture. Process the dough just until it forms a ball, about 30 seconds. Remove the dough from the workbowl, set it on your work surface, cover it with a large bowl, and let it rest for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to rehydrate. Process the dough in four or five 30-second intervals, hand kneading it to cool it off between intervals. Remove the dough from the workbowl and knead in the rosemary by hand.
Fermenting and turning the dough:
Place the dough [it will be rather wet and sticky] in a container at least 3 times its size and cover it tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough ferment until light and doubled in bulk, about 6 hours. Turn the dough [This means: take the dough out of the bowl and put it on a work surface dusted with flour. Sprinkle flour on top of the dough. Spread it into a rectangle. Fold the left side to the center, then the top, then the right, then the bottom, then flip it over so that the seam side is down, and place it back in the bowl.] 3 times in 20-minute intervals, that is, after 20, 40, and 60 minutes of fermenting, then leave the dough undisturbed for the remaining time. [Since the dough is so wet/sticky, be sure to be pretty generous with the extra flour when you're handling it.]
Shaping and proofing the dough:
Cut the dough in half. Round the pieces and let rest for about 20 minutes. Lightly press one piece of the dough into a rectangle. Loosely fold it into thirds like a business letter by folding the bottom short edge up and the top down. Place it seam side down on a couche [this is a sheet of linen that dough resists sticking to] and cover it with a flap of the couche. Repeat with the other piece. Let them proof for about 1 1/2 hours.
Cover a peel or rimless baking sheet with a large piece of parchment paper. Remove the dough from the couche and gently press each piece into a 12 x 6 inch rectangle with your hands (the workers in the bakery use a small wooden ruler to get the dimensions just so). Press your fingertips deeply into the dough to stipple it all over. [Since the dough is so wet and sticky, I found it MUCH easier to do this by putting some olive oil in my hand and rubbing it all over my fingers, so that I could sink my fingers in the dough w/o it sticking to me.] Move the rectangles of dough to the parchment paper and resquare them. Cover them with plastic wrap and let proof until very soft and well expanded, about 2 hours more. The total proof time is about 3 1/2 hours.
Preheat the oven: About 45 minutes before the bread is fully proofed, arrange a rack on the ovens second-to-top shelf and place a baking stone on it. Clear away all racks above the one being used. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Poke the dough all over with a toothpick or a skewer, pushing all the way through. If desired, just before baking, fill the oven with steam. [I did this by spraying the oven with water every time I had to open the door. It's not a requirement but steam helps give the bread a crisp crust.] Slip the breads, still on the paper, onto the hot stone and bake for 5 minutes. Carefully flip the breads over onto the stone and remove the paper. Continue baking until they are well browned, about 20 minutes more, rotating them after 10 minutes. Let the breads cool on a rack.