What do Puerto Ricans have for breakfast, you may ask. Well, bread - lots of bread! A wonderful tradition that I wish people followed here in the U.S. is to go get fresh baked bread in the mornings. Warm fresh out of the oven pan de agua is not so rare for Puerto Ricans in the island. But, it's not so easy to find outside the island, but that's not an excuse anymore! You can make it at home with our super easy recipe!
5 cups all purpose flour
2 cups lukewarm water
1 tbs sugar
1 pkg dry active yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tbs vital wheat gluten
1 egg + 1 tbs water
Let’s start by activating our yeast. Add a tablespoon of sugar to your water and mix to dissolve. This sugar is yeast’s favorite food, so it will provide the energy your yeast needs to begin reproducing and creating carbon dioxide, which is what makes your bread rise. Once the sugar is mixed in, add your packet of yeast to the water and stir to combine.
Now let this mixture rest for a couple of minutes. You should begin to see bubbles forming on the surface along with a light brown scum. This means your yeast is alive and multiplying--a good thing. Once you see the bubbles, you are good to go.
Now add your yeast/water combination to a large bowl and add half of your flour. This is now what is called a sponge, in which you allow the yeast to grow and develop. It helps ensure a better rise later on and also imparts a lot of flavor into your bread, as the yeasts produce alcohols as a byproduct of their fermentation. Use a whist to vigorously beat your sponge, trying to incorporate as much air into it as possible.
Once thoroughly beaten, cover your sponge with plastic wrap and let it sit for 1 - 2 hours. The more time you leave it, the more flavorful your bread will be. I let mine sit for the full 2 hours.
After the two hours, you should see a noticeable increase in the sponge’s volume, and it should be filled with little bubbles. This is just the yeast putting off carbon dioxide, which means your dough will rise well once it’s formed.
So now let’s form our dough. Take your sponge and add the rest of the ingredients. The crushed ice, the salt, the wheat gluten, and almost all of the remaining flour, reserving about ½ a cup. I find it easiest to add the flour little by little, as I mix it into the sponge. You want to keep adding flour until the dough holds together and you can start working it with your hands. You want it to be sticky, as a wet dough will get you a better rise in the end. But you also don’t want it to be so wet that you can’t handle it.
Once you’ve formed a dough, flour a clean working surface and turn your dough out onto it. If your dough is still wet, keep adding flour as your work it -- even if it means grabbing additional flour from your pantry.
With the dough on your working surface, begin kneading it. You could use a bread mixer here if you wanted to -- it’s definitely easier and faster -- but I wanted to show how it’s done by hand, for anyone out there who doesn’t have a mixer. In order to knead it, just use the palm of your hand to press down in the center of the dough and stretch it forward. Then pull that piece back into your dough as you rotate the dough slightly and repeat the motion. The goal is to constantly stretch your dough and then allow it to relax. This motion helps the gluten form long, continuous sheets of protein which give the bread its shape and -- more importantly -- trap the carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the yeast in order to allow the bread to rise.
Keep kneading the dough with this same motion -- press down into the middle of the dough with the heel of your palm and push the dough forward, then collect the dough while rotating it slightly and repeat the motion. If the dough becomes too sticky so you can’t work it, just add a little bit more flour and keep going. You want to knead your dough 10 - 15 minutes, until it has a smooth texture.
Once your dough is kneaded, we just need to shape it into a ball before letting it rise. To do this, use your hands to cup the dough and then press in with the bottom of your palms to pinch the dough together on the bottom. Rotate the dough ball slightly as you do this, so you work your way around the whole dough. Keep doing this until the ball keeps its form and begins to have a smooth surface. Once your ball is shaped, spray your bowl with oil, to keep the dough from sticking, add the dough ball, spray the top with oil and cover it with plastic wrap.
Now we are going to let this rise for 2 hours. The dough should more than double in volume.
Once your dough has risen, take off the plastic wrap and “punch it down.” Basically, what you are doing here is making sure that the yeast is evenly distributed. Because of the ball shape of your dough, a lot of the yeast is concentrated on the inside of your dough. So what you want to do is basically flip your dough inside out. To do this, reach down the back of your bowl and pull the bottom up and over the top of your dough. Now do this again in the front and sides and the finish by punching down the dough in the middle.
With your dough punched down, you are ready to shape your dough. Start by dividing your dough. I’m going to be using the dough to make two large baguette-shaped loaves, so I divided the dough in half. I like to use my hands to squeeze the dough apart, rather than using a knife. I think that cutting your dough just results in more gas escaping and making it rise less.
Now begin shaping your two pieces into balls. This is basically the same as we did before. Use your hands to cup the dough ball and press the bottom of the ball together, pinching the two sides in the middle. Keep rotating your dough ball slightly as you pinch the bottom, to ensure and even ball.
Once your balls are formed, we are going to grab them on the sides and pull them slightly to make a loose oval. We are making long baguettes, so this is a better approximation than a purely spherical ball. Just pull the sides out, then give it a second to relax before doing it again.
Once you’ve done this, cover your two ovals with plastic, spraying them with oil to prevent the plastic from sticking. Then let them rest for 15 minutes to allow the dough to relax. This makes the shaping a lot easier.
Once rested, let’s form our baguettes.
To do this, take your hands and place your thumbs behind the oval, while your fingers are in front. Then use your index finger to push the middle of the dough down and pull the back and front together with your fingers and thumbs. As the dough comes together on the top of the oval, pinch it together firmly. You want to make sure the two sides seal together, so make sure it’s a firm pinch. Do this along the entire length of the oval, tucking in the ends, then give your loaf a couple rolls, before repeating the process. Push the dough down in the middle, then pull the front and back together, pinching them at the top. Once you’ve done this process three times, your baguette is shaped, now just roll it out to your desired length, tapering it towards the end.
Repeat the process with your second oval.
Once your baguettes are shaped, cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Here I’ve folded the parchment paper so it forms a wall in the middle, in order to separate the two baguettes. Now transfer your baguettes on to the pan. Spray them with a little oil and cover them with plastic wrap. You want this plastic covering to be very loose, in order to give the loaves plenty of space to expand as they rise.
Now let your loaves rest for 2 hours.
Once your loaves are almost done resting, turn your oven on to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and add a small metal tray to the very bottom of your oven.
We are going to coat your loaves with an egg wash before baking them, so let’s make that now. Just beat together one egg, along with a tablespoon of water. Make sure to beat it until the mixture is smooth and easy to spread. Then use a brush to paint the egg wash onto your loaves, which should be fully risen by now.
Once you’ve put your egg wash onto your loaves, you have the option of scoring your bread before baking. I like doing this because I think it looks prettier, but it also gives the dough a little more room to rise as it heats up in the oven.
To do this, just use a really sharp knife or razor blade and cut the loaves diagonally in 3 or 4 places. Because your dough is pretty wet, be careful not to cut too deeply or you’ll end up tearing it more than you want. Just hold your knife almost parallel to the surface and slice quickly in a straight line.
Right before you put your loaves into the oven, add a cup and a half of hot water to the pan you placed in the bottom of the oven. Then add your loaves and quickly close the door. You want to add this water in order to keep the oven moist during the first 10-15 minutes of the bake. This moisture keeps the bread’s surface soft, allowing it to grow in volume in the oven, something known as ovenspring. Now back your bread for about 25 minutes.
Once you’ve added the water to the pan, put your bread in and bake it for 25 mins.
After the 25 minutes, take a spray bottle filled with pure water and use it to spray your loaves. This additional water helps to create a crust on the top of your bread. Depending on how crusty you want your bread you can do this two or three times, every couple of minutes.
After spritzing your bread with water, bake it an additional 5 -10 minutes, until its golden brown and sounds hollow when you knock on it.
Once it’s done, take it out and transfer it to a cooling rack. When you cut into it, your bread should be crusty on top, with a soft inside and an irregular crumb. You are now ready to enjoy it!
Check out our instructional video, showing how to make this recipe step-by-step HERE.