Baking bread is in my blood, or at least it is in my family. My earliest memories of my Grandfather were coming down the steps in his house in Montreal to the smell of yeast. The house would be warm due to the oven that had been on keeping the rising dough warm and the yeast in it happy. My grandfather and sister, the early risers in the family, would have been already up for hours, making the sponge, adding flour to make it into dough, and then putting it in a bowl, on top of the oven to let it rise. My grandfather would put the bowl under a paper bag, to create a warm, yeast friend microclimate. They must have felt right at home it because his bread turned out every time. Rye bread, whole wheat loafs, baguettes, you name it, he could probably make it. While my youthful palate didn't quite appreciate the flavor of rye bread, I did love the days he would make baguette.
After recently reconnecting with an old friend who has taken up bread making, I decided to give the whole experience another try. If you recall, I tried to make bread last winter, during the blizzard that hit D.C. While it tasted just fine I was disappointed with how it came out. I didn't think it rose enough and it was a little dense for my taste. I was discouraged after devoting so much time to one recipe that I put my professional baking aspirations aside. There is something to be said about being able to make your own bread- a certain connection to your past that you can to reconnect with. I suppose going to the store and buying bread is more convenient now. Practice makes perfect so I am refueling my mission to make good, moist bread, if anything but to carry on a family tradition. Thoroughly impressed that my friend had mastered the technique must have stirred my competitive spirit and I decided I would give his recipe a try. Turns out it is a recipe for no-knead bread. No muscles needed for this kind. Time, and lots of it, you do need though.
The basic concept is the following. Take flour, a little bit of yeast, water and salt, mix it together and let it do what it would do naturally. Rise. The bread requires less yeast because it will multiply for hours and hours (12-18 hours to be exact) instead of just 2-3. Once dough is bubbly, place it on a towel and let it rise a little bit more. Put it in the oven and it's done. It sounded almost too easy so I had to try. Twice. My first attempt was in my Dupont Circle apartment. The bread tasted fine but I thought I should try again. The second try was in my sister's Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle. Outcome: tasty!
My friend sent me the original recipe that he found in the New York Times in 2006 by Jim Lahey.
Jim Lahey's No -Knead Bread
as published in the New York Times on November 8, 2006
and as found in My Bread -The Revolutionary no-wor, no-knead method by Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting ¼ teaspoon instant yeast 1¼ teaspoons salt Cornmeal ( I used semolina flour)
1 5/8 cups water
(NOTE: Who calls for 5/8 cups of water? I think it would be less confusing to the mathematically challenged to say 1/2 cup and then more if needed)
In a large bowl combine the flour, yeast, salt and water. Stir it well until it is all incorporated. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for 12-18 hours. You'll know the dough is ready (when the yeast has played around, flirted, and reproduced). The dough will be bubbly and darker.
First try- Dupont Circle
Second try - Seattle
When the dough looks right, or you have gone to sleep, woken up, ran a few errands and finally have come back to check on your dough, lay out a clean dish towel and sprinkle the cornmeal (white flour, whole wheat flour, semolina flour) on the towel. Gently take the dough out of the bowl and shape it into a ball. The dough will be surprisingly sticky. It's loose and sticky and I found was very hard to actually shape into a ball. I passed it from hand to hand, each time extracting the free hand as if it had been covered in Nickelodeon slime. After deciding if you can ever get this blob was to resemble a ball, put it seam down onto the floured cloth.
Sprinkle it with more semolina flour and cover it with a second clean towel. Let it rise for about another 2 hours until it doubles in size. My dough never doubled. I was counting the squares on the tea towel and it only increased about 2 more squares.
30 minutes before the bread is done, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a heavy cast iron pot in your oven. Le Creuset pots are perfect for this I have found. When you are done waiting around for your dough to rise and want to get on with your day (yes, that's right), carefully take the now very hot pot out of the open, take the lid off and carefully "plop" the dough into the pot, seam side up. This seam will create a beautifully delicious crack on the top crust of your bread. Put the lid back on and put it back in the oven for 30 minutes. When the time is up, take the lid off the pot and put it back in the oven for 15-30 minutes. I found that you definitely need the full 30 minutes.
When it's done, take it out of the pot with a spatula. Be sure not to crack or break the crust because the bread is still baking with steam inside. Let it cool for about an hour before you can eat it.
First try - Dupont Circle
Second try - Seattle
The second try was definitely more of a success than the first. I think this is partly because I turned the heat in my apartment way down in DC. I can't sleep with heat blowing in my face all night and since the dough rose overnight in my 62 degree kitchen for the first attempt, I don't think the yeast was quite as happy as it could have been. The second attempt was in a baby-friendly apartment, that was kept quite a bit warmer than mine was. The bubbles in the bread were larger. Note to self- overheat at night for the sake of your bread. The crust the second time around was also a lot better. The inside was light and fluffy and almost had a tangy taste to it. The crust was deliciously crunchy. The bottom was nice and dark and almost stuck to my teeth when I bit down into it. I love this kind of bread. I have the best memories of sitting in various cafes, eating moist bread that has crust that sticks to your molars.
I consider this bread a success! It tastes a lot better than anything I can buy at my local Safeway and is a lot cheaper than anything I can find at Whole Foods, if you don't count man hours. I will continue this bread project, hoping to perfect the recipe above and tweaking it slightly.
...and who doesn't like a "tartine" on homemade bread in the morning?