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Bread bulletin: Finding the hole-y grail

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Many home cooks are intimidated by the kneading and shaping of bread, but getting my hands right in the mix has been what I liked best about breadmaking (that's the masochist in me). But while my everyday breads have been edible, they were just adequate. I've never been able to get a crusty bread or the crumb with the large holes, and I wanted bread that I had tasted in France. I knew that would be difficult to replicate, but a close facsimile would be nice.

Some years ago, Mark Bittman wrote in The New York Times about a technique used by baker Jim Lahey to make a crusty bread which didn't need kneading but took about 20 hours to produce. I saved that recipe but never tried it.

But recently I saw chefs Laura Calder and Michael Smith make the bread in their respective cookery shows on TV and I finally decided to give it a try. Waiting for the dough to rise is a long process, as time does all the work, and so is this post, so fair warning.

The French, and other bakers as well, like to keep the way they make their bread a secret, even if the recipe isn't – after all, it's simply water, flour, yeast and salt. Thanks to Mark Bittman, who made the process accessible through his New York Times article and video of Jim Lahey showing him the technique (he's also come out with a book), hundreds of bakers have tried it and blogged about it. I've read through many of their posts and it's apparent that what works for one person may not work for another. It depends on a number of factors – the quality and type of flour, the weather, the pot that the bread is baked in, etc.

The recipe calls for a heavy-duty pot that can withstand the high temperature of the oven and a Dutch oven is the obvious choice. These casserole dishes are, however, terribly expensive here in Malaysia and weren't exactly available until recently. Pyrex is a good substitute, according to Lahey, but I can't bring myself to own one despite their contemporary designs. And then Michael Smith showed that one could use a stainless steel saucepan as well and since I had that, I was on my way.

(In Calder's recipe, by the way, the pot size is stated as 8 quarts/2 litres, but if you make the conversion, those measurements don't actually correspond.)

I had a number of flops (although the unsuccessful bread didn't go to waste) initially but finally everything aligned and I found the hole-y grail. Whatever you call it – No-Knead Bread, Pane Integrale, Miracle Boule – this is a fantastic recipe and produces the kind of bread that keeps people off the no-carb diet. I used Lahey's original recipe but what works for me is a combination of the methods and use of utensils/equipment from all the bakers I've cited above and provided links to.

Because of its high water content, this bread will not stay crusty for long, but you can give it a second toasting in the oven. The first time I made this, I was impatient and did not give the loaf time to rest before cutting into it and the inside was a bit gummy, although the requisite holes and airyness was there. The smell of the dough is fantastic after the first rising, and gets better after the second. And the crackling sound as I cut into the crust just inspires me to keep on making this bread.

I like this recipe because it makes just one loaf of bread. In fact, I scale it down by half to make a smaller loaf since I am the only one at home who eats bread.

Inspired, I went to look for Lahey's book. It wasn't at the bookstore but Nancy Baggett's Kneadlessly Simple was and since it's received good reviews, I got that instead. Can't wait to try out her Easy Cinnamon Sticky Buns.

With the no-knead technique, there's not much to do except wait, which takes some of the fun out of breadmaking for me. But I'm not complaining because taste always takes precedence, don't you agree?

Adapted from Jim Lahey's original recipe. Makes 1 large round loaf

3 cups (400g) white bread flour*, plus extra for dusting
¼ teaspoon dry active yeast
1½ teaspoons salt
1¼ cups (310ml) tepid water (use boiled water, not straight from the tap)
The wet dough (left) will rise as it rests and bubbles will form on the surface
  • Mix the dry ingredients together thoroughly. Add the water and stir until a wet, goopy dough forms. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rest on the kitchen counter (it's warm enough in Malaysia) for 12 to 18 hours. It will double in size and the surface will be covered with bubbles.
Place the dough on a well-floured tea towel
  • Lay a cotton tea towel on a large tray and cover thoroughly with flour. Using a dough scrapper or lightly floured hands, bring the dough together. Quickly form it into a ball with your hands and place on the tea towel, seam side down. Rest again for 2 hours until doubled in size.

Keep the lid on to produce a crust with crunch
  • Half an hour before the dough is ready, preheat your oven to 250°C (this is the maximum for most home ovens). Place a 3-5 litre heavy-duty pot in the oven with the lid on. When the dough has fully risen, slide your hand under the towel and quickly invert the delicate dough into the hot pot (use thick oven gloves to handle the pot!). Shake the pot a bit to settle the dough, then place the lid on and start baking. Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on, then remove and bake for 15 minutes more until the top is golden. Remove from oven and let the bread rest for at least 15 minutes (very important!) before cutting/tearing into it. Serve with homemade butter.

Crusty and brown
* According to Lahey, you can replace ¾ cup of the white bread flour with wholewheat. Just increase the yeast to ½ teaspoon. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I haven't been successful with anything other than an all-white bread (I've also tried it with rye flour). I hope you fare better and please let me know what you are doing right. Thanks.

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