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November 21, 2003

Small Time Cooks

The coffee was about as stale as my bagel. I'd been on the road for days, trailing a guy who was trying to hide from my employers. He had visited just about every goon on the way out of Illinois, and I had visited just about every diner in southern Illinois while playing follow the leader.

I took a break to call Maria. She was ready to cook again, which was good since I was coming back to the city. I thought my case was about to break for the south, so I called my employer and told them the specifics.

I finished up my coffee, deciding what to cook with Maria. I was in the mood for baking. I'd had enough with stale bagels, donuts, and old sandwiches on the road. Bread was the answer. Nothing beats warm fresh bread. It takes time, but it's worth it after a long day.

Fabulous Homemade Bread

3 Tablespoons warm (hot) water

1 (1 oz.) package active dry yeast

1 Tablespoon bread flour

1 Teaspoon white sugar

1 cup quick cooking oats

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup warm water

1 Teaspoon salt

4 Tablespoons brown sugar

3 Tablespoons vegetable oil

Bread flour, as needed (usually about 3 cups)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the first four ingredients and stir together. Let grow for about 5 minutes (it should start to bubble almost immediately). Add in the oats, wheat flour, warm water, salt, brown sugar, and vegetable oil. Mix well for 1 to 2 minutes. Now, add in the bread flour about 1 cup at a time, stirring well. Begin to knead with clean hands after about 2 cups of flour have been added. Knead over a lightly floured, clean surface. Add the bread flour until all the dough peels away from the bowl, but is still a little sticky. Form the dough into a ball. Drizzle a little vegetable oil on the dough, and turn to cover the outside of the ball. Cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm spot for about an hour, or until the dough is about two to three times in size. For lighter bread, let it rise more; for heavier bread, let it rise less. Grease a 9"x5" pan, or two 8"x4" pans. Form dough into the pan into a loaf shape, and let rise about an hour or until the dough is about an inch above the rim of the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown and hard. Remove from oven and let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then remove from the pan onto a cooling rack. Always keep the bread covered, from rising to eating (store in a plastic bag after cool). Eat.

This bread is an all-purpose bread. You can add anything you like to it: honey, nine grain mix, sunflower seeds, raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Or, brush the top of the loaf with honey or butter and oats just before it goes into the oven. It's also great by itself.

Focaccia Bread

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 package dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 cup warm water

Chopped fresh rosemary

Parmesan

Stir together yeast, salt, and 1 cup of flour in a large bowl. Add in the warm water and olive oil. Stir together well (it should be watery). Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time, kneading with your hands after the dough gets thick. The dough should effortlessly pull away from the sides of the bowl when enough flour has been added. Drizzle a little olive oil over the dough ball, and turn the ball to coat. Put the greased ball into a large bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm spot until the ball has doubled in size, about 30 to 35 minutes. Punch down the dough, and roll it out on a cookie sheet that has been greased with olive oil. Let rise again, covered, about 20 to 30 minutes. Brush olive oil on the top of the dough to cover the surface, and sprinkle with fresh chopped rosemary and grated Parmesan cheese. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve with olive oil and black pepper.

General advice: Making bread is like a chemistry experiment. Every ingredient has its purpose, so don't change too much without making a loaf first to try it out. It'd be like firing a pistol without knowing which direction the bullets will come out.

For vegans: Everything is delicious and vegan, except the Parmesan. It's still delicious, just not vegan. Don't add it; the Focaccia bread will retain its deliciousness.