I have a problem: yeast. I have had a bad track record of killing it and producing not so great results in my baking. In January I was talking to a friend about it and made a quasi-resolution to bake something with yeast every month in 2016 to try to get over my phobia. Or at least to have better results.
In January, I made pizza crust. It wasn’t terrible. In fact, it turned out pretty great. I had used a Jim Lahey recipe. He’s been kind of known for his no-knead bread recipes — long fermentation and slow rises rather than lots of kneading. What I liked about it was that the slow rise makes it possible to start with almost cold water which is where I think I usually go awry — water too hot it kills the yeast. In the pizza crust, the initial rest period is 18 hours.
When I was thinking about what to make in February, I was thinking I needed a similar slow rise recipe to help guarantee good results in my early not-so-confident days. I have been printing out recipes I might try making this year and among them was a recipe for no-knead bread I thought was by Mark Bittman. Turns out it was another Jim Lahey recipe on the NY times site: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/11376-no-knead-bread.
Like the recipe before, it couldn’t have been easier. Indeed, the whole bread making process probably only takes about 20 minutes of active work and the rest of the time is spent waiting for things to happen. Again, the first slow rise process is about 18 hours. Because of some work commitments I had on the day of baking, mine actually probably went an hour or two longer.
After the slow rise, the very gooey, very sticky mess is put on to a floured surface for just a fold or two to incorporate some flour, another short rest, and then formed into a ball. This process is minutes of your time.
The next step is putting the ball of dough into a cotton towel that is floured. I failed to realize the importance of this step even though I did it. First, the dough will still be sticky. Even using a cotton towel that was well floured, it was very difficult to get the sticky ball to release in the pan when I was ready. Second, there’s no such thing as too much flour on the towel. If the towel hadn’t been smooth cotton, I don’t think it ever would have released even with a very generous coating of flour. If I were to do this again, I might experiment with flouring a smooth surface and just covering the top with a towel, but I was superstitious and did everything as described in the recipe.
In the last 30 minutes of so before baking, you pre-heat a dutch oven (I used one of my LeCreuset pans) in a very hot 450 degree oven so that the pan and its lid are smoking hot when the dough goes in. It is a moment where faith comes into play. Although the recipe said it might not look so great and that the dough would center itself in the oven, there was a part of me that still worried that once I opened the top in 30 minutes, I’d be met by an ugly blob.
It was thrilling, then, to take the lid off in 30 minutes to be met by something loaf-like. Another 20 minutes uncovered and I had a glorious, brown artisan bread loaf. It smelled terrific and popped right out of the dutch oven. I probably should have let it cool completely before slicing, but I was too eager and had to take off a chunk right away.
After that, it was lovely meals of toast over several days. I would happily try this recipe again. Sometimes the only thing taking me to the grocery store is bread. On a weekend where I have lots of time, this would be a better option — easy, cheap, and less likely to buy other things on impulse.
Plus it’s delicious.