Italian Bread with Tarragon
This is a variation on Italian Rosemary Bread, one of the fastest breads I know how to make. If you are pushed for time, this loaf will emerge from the oven less than two hours after you start, This quantity makes one good-sized loaf, about 900g or 2lb.
Key steps for this type of rapid-rise bread:
Preheat the pot. Bake this bread in a preheated Le Creuset enameled cast iron casserole or Dutch oven for a thin, crackly crust. If you heat the pan while you heat the oven, it will be hot enough to give the dough a good oven spring — which results in a lighter loaf.
Preheat the dough. Cover the kneaded dough in a large microwave-safe bowl with a piece of plastic wrap sprayed with oil or Pam pressed against the surface; zap for 25 seconds to activate the instant yeast and get the dough rising. Cover with a tea towel to keep in heat.
Rest the dough between bursts of heat. That is, let the dough rest in the microwave where it will continue to rise. Zap for 25 seconds, then rest for five minutes; follow the second burst of 25 seconds with 15 minutes of resting time. If the bread still seems very heavy, do another zap of 25 seconds followed by 15 minutes rest. If you follow this plan, you will be taking the bread out of the oven 75-90 minutes after you started.
Make sure to grease (or spray) both the rising bowl and plastic wrap to cover. You don’t need to grease/spray the Le Creuset because it will be hot enough to instantly sear the dough.
Once you’ve finished the final rise, don’t poke at the dough. Use oven gloves to take the heated pot out of the oven, invert the bowl over the casserole and nudge the dough until it falls into the casserole. Make sure to score the top with a sharp knife.
Bake, covered, for 25 minutes, then uncover and bake for 12-15 more minutes. Invert over your cooling rack and tap the bottom: it should sound hollow.
Cool the bread for 15 minutes before slicing and eating with butter or serving with soup. If you are slicing to give portions away, wait until it has cooled completely, as it will slice more cleanly.
Italian Bread with Tarragon
14g (2 x ¼-ounce packets) active dry yeast
12g (1 Tbsp) any type of sugar
300g (generous 1½ cups) water – have some extra water to hand
150g or so levain or poolish – to make poolish, see note at the end
500g (3½ cups) bread flour, or a mixture of bread flour and all-purpose flour
10g (1½ tsp) kosher salt
60-70g (½ cup) olive oil
8g (1 tsp) balsamic vinegar
5-6 stalks fresh tarragon, finely chopped
Optional: small handful home-dried marjoram
Place the yeast, sugar, and hot water in a medium mixing bowl and stir to combine. Add the poolish (at room temperature), and mix. Set aside in a warm place for five minutes to activate the yeast; it should be frothy. While the yeast is getting ready, measure out the other ingredients in a smaller mixing bowl.
With an electric hand mixer, beat the yeast mixture until smooth. Dump in the other ingredients and beat until the flour is incorporated. Scrape the bottom on the bowl. If it’s still too dry, add a dollop or drizzle of boiling water and continue to scrape and beat until you have a sticky dough. Cover with plastic wrap sprayed with oil or Pam, and set aside for 20 minutes to rest and autolyze.
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven, remove any racks above it, and heat to 450°F / 190°C. Place a Dutch oven (or Le Creuset enameled cast iron casserole with a lid, or equivalent) in the oven as it heats.
Spread flour over your counter, and knead the dough vigorously for 5 minutes, or until it becomes extremely elastic. (This will still be a wet dough, but not goopy. The dough will clear the sides of the bowl but still stick to the bottom.) Use a dough scraper as needed.
Lightly grease or spray a large microwave-safe bowl. Transfer the bread dough into the bowl and cover the bowl plastic wrap sprayed with Pam, pressed onto the top of the dough. Microwave own HIGH for 25 seconds. Let rest for five minutes.
Microwave on HIGH for 25 seconds more. Remove from the microwave and let rest and rise for 15 minutes more with a folded tea towel on top (to retain the warmth). [Repeat this step if you think the bread needs to rise a bit more.]
Pull the hot casserole or Dutch oven out of the oven, and set aside the lid. Nudge the dough into the Dutch oven, and shake it a few times to settle.. Quickly slash the top with a knife. Cover and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake until the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature hits 200°F, about 10 minutes more.
Let cool at least 30 minutes before slicing and serving.
Leftover bread can be stored cut-side down at room temperature for up to three days. It can also be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil (or a Ziplok bag) and frozen for up to three months.
Note: I use a POOLISH instead of levain (sourdough starter,) because it’s easier to keep going and makes a less ‘sour’ result. To start a poolish (or ‘polish’ as my autocorrect insists on calling it), make a thick paste of 200g flour – all-purpose or bread flour, or a combination of the two – with water (at room temperature). Add a good pinch of dried yeast, and beat incorporating air until the paste is sloppy but smooth. Leave it at room temperature for an hour or so to activate. Store in the fridge, and feed with more flour+water paste every day or so, depending how much you use in your (daily) bread-making. Baguettes require 250g, and other types of bread take 150-180g per batch. Feed your poolish every day, keep it in the fridge, and bring out an hour before you need it so that it’s live and bubbling (and room temperature) before adding to the yeast mixture. To use, add to the hot water, sugar, and dried yeast, then set aside in a warm place until the mixture is actively frothing.