Recipe: Slow Cooker Artisan Bread and Skillet Pizzas

While my learning curve in cooking has improved over the years from trial and error, one area of cooking I'm admittedly quite inexperienced in is baking.

I never had much of a sweet tooth growing up so things like cakes, pastries, cookies and other baked goods were never something I actively sought out.

However as we all well know, carbs in baked form comes in many other ways beside dessert and I'll  ashamedly admit the fondness I have for good bread is slightly embarrassing.

Good quality, fresh-baked bread with a nice crust and soft center is like crack for me and I'll have to stop myself from eating too much of an excellent bread basket before a meal. Even with pizzas I've never understood why anyone in their right mind would order thin crust pizzas. A pizza, no matter how good, will never come close to top marks for me unless it has a nice, bready crust. I've been known to even eat the crust leftovers of those who choose to leave them uneaten (heathens!)

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rep in recent years and while I haven't felt any need to change my diet due to this "movement", I have been slightly concerned about what goes into the baked breads I buy from my neighborhood chain bakery. I've seen investigative reports where the breads here were often laden with preservatives and excessive amount of sugar and salt while using old flour.

So the challenge I took upon myself was to bake myself bread for the first time in my life.The major problem however, in addition to my complete lack of experience in baking, was the absence of an oven where I live.

But then I came across a few recipes online enlightening me that bread could be cooked in a slow cooker!

Skeptical but up for a challenge, I was encouraged to give it a go following instructions from this blog: Breadin5.

This definitely turned out to be a learning experience for me along the way as I encountered a few issues which I'll expound upon in the instructions... and best of all, it yielded some great pizzas which I'll share the instructions later down in this post...

But first, making the dough!

So Breadin5's basic recipe for artisan bread dough goes like this:

Artisan Bread Dough (By Breadin5)
Makes four (4)  one pound loaves

- 3 cups lukewarm water
- 1 tbsp granulated yeast (I bought my pack from Emart)
- 1-1.5 tbsp of kosher salt
- 6.5 cups of all-purpose flour

1. In a big bowl, mix the water and yeast

Ingredients assembled!

2. Dump in all of the flour into the water and yeast and stir until incorporated. You should get a pretty wet dough

Wet and dry ingredients coming together

Sooooo.... this is where I learned firsthand the first rules of baking: baking, unlike cooking, must be measured and followed as close to the instructions as possible.

I used to wonder why recipes outside of the States listed ingredients in grams until this first bread baking attempt. Unlike cooking where you can eyeball measurements and go with the flow, baking requires precision. I did use a measuring cup but sort of just eyeballed the measurements and realized after mixing everything that the dough was overly wet. 

From here I had to tediously add a bit more of flour and mix and repeat until it looked a bit more right. 

The first baking lesson learned here: always measure and measure accurately 

3. Seal the top of your container with your mixed dough with a cover that has a small hole in it. In my case, I just plastic wrapped the top, put a rubber band on it and then used a knife to punch one very small hole in the center. Wait about 2 hours for the dough to rise.
Letting the dough rise

Now here is where I encountered issue number two- I didn't realize the recipe yielded enough dough for four loaves. The size of my eyes grew directly in proportionate to the dough rising as I realized about an hour in that I would be left with a whole lot of dough.... and not the green kind I could feed to my bank account....

Two hours later I was left with a huge container that was practically filled to the top with dough. 

Two hours later... So. much. dough. 

What had begun as a test experiment to hopefully produce a single loaf of bread had suddenly transformed my kitchen into a bread factory.

So, rule number two: read the entire thoroughly recipe before going for it

4. Pull out a pound of the dough from the batch and roll into a ball. Place on a sheet of parchment paper and cook on high. The recipe on the site said for about an hour but mine took about two hours... I also flipped it around and such time to time to get a good browning on all the different sides.

The finished loaf!

I could barely believe my eyes when it was done. It really looked and smelled like a real loaf of bread. Cutting into it, I was pleasantly surprised too.

Taste-wise I was a little surprised at first at how unsweet the bread tasted. This made me realize just how much sugar and salt other bakeries must have been putting into their bread. It had a nice crust, perhaps not as nice as an oven but still good enough while the insides was soft and moist.

Whether slathered with some jam or butter, used for sandwiches or just eaten plain, this was an altogether successful first attempt. Be warned though, this is bread made without preservatives or anything. This means as each day passes your bread will harden considerably. If you've still got some of the bread leftover after 3 or so days it will be just a rock of carbs. In that case cube it up and make some croutons out of it or something :)

I baked another loaf to give to a friend but that meant I still had half of the dough left so I figured I should try making pizzas out of the leftover.

After a quick google search, I found this useful page of advice and instructions from the ever-so-awesome Alton Brown for oven-less, skillet pizzas.

These were a fantastic hit and had me use the rest of the dough in a tasty manner. Here's the pretty simple directions with some adaptations by me:

Skillet-less Pizzas (Adapted from Alton Brown's Recipe)
Makes 3-4 servings

You'll need:
- Roughly 2 pounds of dough from the Artisan Bread Dough recipe
- 1 jar of tomato sauce (you won't need the whole jar though so plan for pasta in a few days after opening)
- cheeses of your choice (mozzarella, monterey jack, whatever)
- Diced up veggies and any other toppings of your choice (chopped mushrooms, bell peppers, spinach, diced tomatoes, onions, olives, etc)

1. Divide your dough into about 3-4 lumps (slightly bigger than a palms worth) and roll each of them into a ball

2. One by one, place the rolled ball dough on a lightly floured surface and thinly roll them out with a rolling pin until you come out with your pizza bread base. Each will be about 6-8 inches in diameter. (I like to leave the outsides of the rolled dough just a tad bit thicker but it's up to you).

3. Heat your skillet beforehand to a medium-high heat until the skillet gets pretty hot. As Mr. Alton Brown explains in the original link, a high heat give you a nice puffy crust but too high of a heat and you'll end up burning your dough so I found putting the skillet on medium-high heat for about 2-3 minutes was good for me. Of course, factors like your stove (gas vs. electric) can make a difference so if you're unsure use a small piece of dough as a test method. If it starts burning up too quickly then lower your heat, wait a bit and then try again. You want it hot but not too much!

4. Take one of your rolled out dough and place on the hot skillet. Your dough should right away start bubbling and puffing. After about a minute, check the bottom of your dough. It should be browning up but not fully cooked. This is when you should carefully flip the dough over with a spatula and begin cooking the other side. The second side will be the top of your pizza so cook it fully (about 1.5-2 minutes).

Optional side note: At this point, after you've flipped your pie over and before you've fully cooked the second side, if you've got an open flame gas stove like I do and you feel comfortable enough, I'd recommend the char method that Mr. Brown recommends.

Basically take your skillet while the heat is on, tilt the skillet down so the pizza dough hang over the edges slightly and let it char directly from the flame being careful not to burn it (about 30-40 seconds). Swirl it around after each char so your crust is more or less evenly charred. This not only makes the pizza look better but, in my opinion, makes it taste better too :) I should note, this optional step can be a bit hazardous and even I was left with a minor battle wound...

After a few days still...
Skillet: 1, Stew: 0

5. Once the second side is fully cooked, flip it back over and take out the pizza base. Take a tablespoon or two of the tomato sauce and distribute it evenly around. Take your cheese and toppings of your choice and place it on top of the sauce.

6. Once topped, take the pizza and place it back into the skillet to finish cooking. This time, put a lid on your skillet and cook on around medium-low to medium for about 1-2 minutes until the cheese melts.

I made about three pies and topped them all differently.

For one pie I used leftover barbecue shredded chicken (see here for recipe), added some gouda cheese and sauteed onions and peppers.

Another I sliced up some real, plump sausages into coins, added them with monterey jack, mushrooms, peppers and sliced tomatoes.

The last one I simply added mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and some more of the cut up sausage

With a few beers popped open and a few friends over, the pizzas were quickly gobbled down and was given thumbs of approvals. Even one friend who shared she didn't normally like crusts ate hers up too!

In any case, don't despair if you're without an oven like me as good bread and good pizzas are still more than possible to make!