Editor’s Note: We have been asking readers (and the occasional Press Herald writer) to tell us what they are cooking, and why, during this time of self-isolation. This week, MEGAN GRAY, who cover courts for the Press Herald, tells us about attempting homemade bread. Bonus: she threw in a recipe for an Italian-esque white bean stew. 

I looked at the lump of wet dough, and I felt defeated by it all.

A few days earlier, I was trying to think positive thoughts during the pandemic, and I came across a recipe for a stew of pantry staples on the New York Times Instagram account. The bowl looked warm and comforting and simple in complicated times. The writer suggested pairing the meal with a piece of crusty bread, and that is when it happened.

I decided to bake bread – again.

I will have so much time at home, I told myself. I have tried many times to master the art of bread baking, I said to myself, but I usually rush it and fail. Could there be a better time to dedicate myself to learning this skill? I answered myself by Googling “easiest bread recipes.”

But here I was. It was Tuesday night, and I was late for my deadline for a story about the coronavirus response. The copy desk was waiting on me, and I was waiting on two evening phone interviews, and my dough was apparently going to wait to rise. I had started the simple recipe early in the morning, and it did rise nicely during the day. But when I turned it out onto the counter, it didn’t form a ball so much as a pancake. An hour later, when I peered under the kitchen towel, it had not grown more as promised. I wondered if it had even deflated. I certainly had.

My phone rang. I dumped the mess into my Dutch oven, shoved it into the oven and ran to take my call. I was on the second interview when the timer went off, but I couldn’t type and handle an extremely hot Dutch oven at the same time. By that point, I was sure my bread would be a stodgy failure, unable to rise under my oppressive coronavirus anxiety. When I hung up the phone 15 minutes later, I trudged to the oven to remove what I was sure would be a burned mess.

It looked… golden brown! I finished my last paragraphs while stealing glances at the cooling loaf. My husband exited the video conference for his evening class just as I filed my story. We filled bowls of stew and sliced thick pieces of our crusty bread and joined a trivia night with my family over Zoom.

And honestly, it really was warm and comforting and simple in complicated times.

Perhaps there is hope after all, I told myself.

Roasted Tomato and White Bean Stew

The recipe came from Colu Henry at New York Times Cooking.

Yields 4 to 6 servings

½ cup roughly chopped Italian parsley leaves and tender stems
2 teaspoons lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
2 (10-ounce) containers cherry or grape tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons and more for drizzling (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes
2 (15-ounce) cans white beans (such as butter or cannellini), rinsed
1 ½ cups vegetable or chicken broth, or water
Flaky salt, for serving (optional)
Toasted bread, for serving

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a small bowl, gently toss together the parsley and lemon zest with your hands until well combined; set aside.

In a large baking dish or on a sheet pan, toss the tomatoes with 1/4 cup oil and thyme; season well with salt and pepper. Roast tomatoes until they have collapsed and begin to turn golden around the edges, 20 to 25 minutes.

When the tomatoes are almost done roasting, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large (12-inch), deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium. Add the onion, garlic and red-pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened and the garlic is fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the rinsed beans and broth and bring to a simmer. With the back of a spoon or spatula, gently smash about ½ cup of the beans so they slightly thicken the broth. If you want a thicker stew, crush some more of the beans. Season with salt and pepper.

When the tomatoes are finished roasting, add them directly to the stew along with any juices that have been released. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes more so the flavors become friendly; season to taste with salt.

Ladle into shallow bowls. Top each serving with some of the lemon-parsley mixture and drizzle with some more olive oil, and season with flaky salt, if you like. Serve with toasted bread.

“Not the most beautiful loaf, but tasty all the same,” Gray wrote us about her freshly baked loaf of No-Knead Bread.

No-Knead Bread

Recipe by Faith Durand from The Kitchn.

Yields 1 loaf

1 pound all-purpose flour (about 3 cups), plus more for sprinkling
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water

Place the flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Make a well in the center, and add the water into the well. Stir until it forms a shaggy dough.

Cover the dough bowl and let rise for 6 to 8 hours. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size and bubbly, 6 to 8 hours.

Shape the dough and rise for another hour. Lightly flour a piece of parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto it, folding it over on itself at least once while you do so. Quickly shape the dough into a round ball. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour more.

About 30 minutes before the hour is up, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven. Place a large Dutch oven with its lid on the rack. Heat the oven to 450°F.

Transfer the loaf to the preheated Dutch oven. The shaped dough will have risen and nearly doubled in size. Using the parchment paper as a sling, carefully transfer the loaf, still on the paper, to the Dutch oven. If desired, make a slash or shallow cut on the top of the dough with kitchen shears or a sharp knife so that the bread can expand while baking.

Place the lid on the pot and put it in the oven. (Careful, the lid is hot!) Bake covered for 30 minutes.

Remove the lid and bake for 15 minutes more. You can be extra sure that the bread is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the top or side registers 210°F.

Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and use the parchment paper to transfer the bread to a wire rack. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing the bread.

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