There is something just plain impressive about serving a room full of people a freshly-baked loaf of bread, especially one you made yourself from scratch. When I have friends over, I'll often make sure that I have a nice, big loaf of foccacchia in the oven, so that when they walk in the first thing they smell is the comforting aroma of fresh bread browning to perfection. Alternatively, I might invite them over for home-made pizza, or else simply bake an old-fashioned loaf for sandwiches with the wife. And I can do all of these things, and more, from one batch of dough.
The recipe I'm about to provide is not merely versatile in the sense that you can make any number of things with it (pizza, loaves, buns, etc.), but it's also easily modified into a whole-grain or multi-grain version with very little difficulty. Yes, that means that I'm going to provide a simple white bread recipe. However, I want you to see that this is merely a conceptual base from which you can build your own signature bread dough, suited to your own tastes and needs. For example, with the simple additions of wheat bran, wheat germ, flax and sunflower seeds, I can produce a healthy bread with a nutty flavour that makes a few days' worth of sandwiches. The point here is that bread-making for the home cook can be much easier than you might think and it adds a versatile tool to your skill set.
Here's the basic recipe:
5 cups unbleached white flour
2 cups room-temperature water
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons oil
1 packet or 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
As with most baking, there are 2 ingredient groups: wet and dry. However, it may not be intuitively clear how many things belong to the wet category. For our purposes, sugar and salt are wet ingredients. That is, you're going to dissolve them in the water and add the resulting solution to the dry ingredients when it comes time to mix. There are only 2 dry ingredients: flour and yeast. Now, you can always use fresh or active yeast, but I find that instant provides the easiest method for home use. I thoroughly recommend that you get comfortable using this method before trying out a traditional yeast, since the technique I'm giving you provides the least opportunities to accidentally kill your little fungi. If that happens, all is lost.
If you have one of those fantastic stand-up mixers, get out your dough hook and use it! If you're not so lucky to have one of those expensive pieces of equipment, don't worry. People made bread for centuries without machines, so why can't you? You will want to prepare for a workout and some messy hands, however. If you have a mixer, then put the flour into the mixing bowl and add the yeast, combining them with a whisk. You want to make sure that the yeast is well-distributed. Once this is done, make a deep well in the flour, add the wet ingredients, and turn the mixer onto a medium-low speed. The idea at this point is to combine the wet and dry without sloshing flour or water all over the place. Sometimes, the dough may climb the hook or stick to the walls of the bowl. Either way, don't be afraid to turn off the machine and push down the dough with a spatula. The idea here is that you want the moisture evenly-distributed about the flour. By pushing the wet, sticky dough off the hook, for example, you help to incorporate whatever dry flour might be let at the bottom of the bowl.