It's the time of year when the soup kettle, the chili pot and the stew in the slow cooker are all bubbling.
All you need is a loaf of warm bread.
New York pastry chef Nick Malgieri's new book, "Nick Malgieri's Bread" ($29.95, Kyle Books), shows just how effortless it can be to turn out a perfect loaf of bread.
Malgieri's recipe for easiest home-baked bread lives up to its name.
"What I love about it is you can make this bread in the afternoon and serve it for dinner," he said.
The recipe takes about 2½ hours from start to finish, including baking time.
"Basic bread is just flour, water, yeast and salt," he said, explaining the simple ingredients.
Malgieri, director of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, said he is always surprised by how intimidated home cooks can become when a recipe calls for yeast.
"It's as though yeast is, I don't know it's not poison," he said, noting the fear factor.
For years, American bread recipes contained so much flour that they produced dense loaves with little flavor and character. Malgieri said that for his book he developed bread recipes for working with today's finely granulated yeasts that are foolproof.
The single biggest cause of failure for cooks working with yeast is beginning by dissolving the yeast into water that is too hot, he said. Today's instant and rapid-rise yeast products are so finely granulated that they will dissolve in lukewarm tap water. Instant, rapid rise and bread machine formulations are interchangeable in recipes.
Work with an unbleached bread flour for best results, and if your water is very hard from excess chemicals, consider using bottled spring water for recipes to avoid giving bread a mineral taste.
Malgieri's bread requires no pre-ferment or starter, and the gluten begins to develop within the first two minutes of mixing. A 15-minute rest and another two minutes in the mixer produce a dough that is smooth and elastic.
The dough gets a 30-minute rest, and then a simple shaping from two folds and a turn, followed by another 30-minute rest.
Turning the dough helps to distribute the yeast better, makes the dough more elastic and imparts much more smoothness to it, Malgieri said.
"It really is easy to do," he added.
After the second rest, the dough is formed into its classic round shape, or boule, and left to rest again to double in size. The skin is tightened by pulling the dough from all around its perimeter into its center, and rounded by pushing against the bottom of the dough.
After a final 30-minute rest, the dough round is pressed down to deflate it slightly, a move that will keep the center from puffing up too much while baking and looking like a basketball, rather than a classic round boule, Malgieri noted.
He mists the bread with water before baking to ensure a crispy crust. Total baking time is about 30 minutes.
Malgieri stressed that it is important to test for doneness with an instant-read thermometer, which he plunges into the center of the round. The bread is done when it reaches 200 degrees internally.
The crust will soften as the bread cools, but the loaf can be reheated in a 350-degree oven for five minutes to crisp up the crust again before serving.
Easiest home-baked bread
Makes one 9- or 10-inch round loaf
1¼ cups room-temperature tap water (75 degrees)
2¼ teaspoon fine granulated active dry
3 cups bread flour (spoon into a dry-measure cup and level off)
1½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Olive or vegetable oil for the bowl
Dust a heavy cookie sheet or pizza pan with cornmeal or line with parchment paper and set aside.
Pour the water into the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk in yeast. Wait 30 seconds; whisk again.
Use a large rubber spatula to stir the flour into the yeast and water mixture a little at a time. Make sure all the flour is mixed into the liquid and there isn't any clinging to the side of the bowl.
Place the bowl on the mixer and attach the dough hook. Mix on the lowest speed until the dough comes together around the dough hook, 1 to 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and pull the dough away from the hook; let the dough rest for 15 minutes.
Increase the mixer speed to low/medium, sprinkle in the salt, and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
Scrape the dough into an oiled bowl and turn it over so that the top is oiled. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough ferment until it starts to puff, about 30 minutes.
Scrape the dough onto a floured work surface, flour your hands, and gently flatten the dough into a disk. Fold the two sides in to overlap at the middle, then roll the top toward you all the way to the end, jelly-roll style. Invert, flatten and repeat. Place the dough back in the bowl seam side down and cover. Let the dough ferment until fully doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes.
To form the dough into a boule-shaped loaf, use a flexible plastic scraper to slide it from the bowl to the floured work surface; try not to deflate the dough. Fold the edges of the dough all around its perimeter into the center. Round the loaf by pushing against the bottom of the dough all around with the sides of your hands held palms upward. The dough will quickly form an even sphere.
Place the dough on the prepared pan and cover it with a towel and let the dough rest until it starts to puff again, about 30 minutes. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.
Once the dough is proofed about 50 percent larger, flour the palms of your hands and gently press to flatten it to about 1½ inches thick. Use a single-edge razor blade to cut 4 slashes in the form of a square at the edges of the loaf and a -inch-deep slash across the diameter of the loaf, then (using a spray bottle filled with warm water) generously spray it with water. Place pan in oven. Wait 5 minutes, then open the oven and spray the loaf again and reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Bake the loaf until it is well risen and deep golden and the internal temperature reads 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 20 to 30 minutes.
Cool the loaf on a rack.
This recipe is from "Nick Malgieri's Bread" ($29.95, Kyle Books).