A few years ago, I was chatting with a co-worker, and as was often the case, the subject of food came up, and he asked me what brand of bread I buy. I told him that I never buy commercial bread at the grocery store; I do occasionally buy bread from a farmer's market in the summer when it's too hot to bake, but most of the time, I bake my own. He said, "Oh, so you must have a bread machine." I said, "Uh, no, I don't." His eyes got wide, and he said, "How can you possibly bake bread without a bread machine??!!" I stood there with my mouth gaping open for a few seconds. Finally, I said, "Sweetheart, people were baking bread for about 10,000 years before the invention of the bread machine." He's a very bright and educated guy, but as a culture, we've become so divorced from the food we eat that almost no one knows how to make the very staff of life. It's really sad, because bread is very easy to make, and the results are so much better than anything you can buy in the store.
This is an adaptation of Mark Bittmann recipe. First, it's only 4 ingredients: 1 pound of bread flour, a teaspoon of salt, 2 1/2 teaspoons (roughly one of those individual packets) of rapid-rise or instant yeast, and 1 1/2 cups of warm (not hot) water. If you want the bread to be a little more flavorful, add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil and/or a teaspoon of sugar. Fat and sugar will also help the bread stay fresh longer.
Second, you can mix it and knead it by hand. You don't need special equipment. However, if you don't feel like kneading by hand and you own a standing mixer, you can throw it in that and use the dough hook to knead it. A food processor works well for this, too. I like to knead bread by hand. It's therapeutic. It also increases the flavor of the bread, because the microbes on your hand become incorporated into the bread. Knead it on a lightly floured surface until it's very smooth and elastic.
Third, you let the bread rise. This can be as short as 2 hours or as long as 12 hours in the refrigerator. Letting it rise overnight in the fridge results in the best flavor and texture, but if you don't want to wait that long, then let the bread rise in a bowl covered with a damp towel in a warm place. I put mine in a cold oven on the top rack, and then I put a pan on the bottom rack, pour boiling water in it, and shut the oven door. The steam from the boiling water creates a warm and moist environment, which helps the bread rise.
Fourth, you shape the bread after it has risen. You can put it in a greased loaf pan or form it into baguettes or a boule or small rolls--whatever strikes your fancy. Small rolls are great for a dinner because you have individual portions, and they also don't take as long to bake.
Fifth, the shaped bread has to rise again, for about 2 hours.
Sixth, you're ready to bake. If you used that pan of water in the oven, leave it in there but pull the bread out. Turn the oven to 450 degrees and let it heat for at least 10 minutes. You want it screaming hot when you put the bread back in to bake. You're leaving that pan of water in there to create steam while baking. This helps the crust and makes the bread rise higher.
While the oven is heating, slash the top of the bread so steam can escape. Otherwise, you could end up with really ugly dough bubbles sticking out of the side of your bread (I speak from bitter experience here). Then spray it with water and sprinkle kosher salt on top. This makes a lovely brown crust.
When the oven is hot, put the bread in, and don't touch it for at least 15 minutes; if you open the door, you'll lose heat and the bread won't puff up. Baking time will vary depending on how you've shaped the bread, from as few as 15 minutes for rolls to 45 minutes for a loaf. For a larger loaf or boule, bake it at 450 for 20 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350 for the remaining 25 minutes. It's done when the internal temperature reaches 210 degrees and it's brown on the bottom.
Wasn't that easy? You need never be dependent on bread machines again. Get out the softened butter, tear off a piece, and enjoy!