05 February 2010

We're baking with electricity now

Making that delightful no-knead bread has been quite an experience, one that has made me think about what it means to make your own food. I remember lots of baking in my childhood, my mother's and when we lived in communal situations she always helped cook. I thought the kitchen was always one of the most interesting places to be. My mom baked for a living after she and my father split up, making pies for restaurants with a friend, and then as pastry chef at Caribou Ranch. She baked healthy breads, adjusting as needed for the 8,000-foot altitude, and even concocted wholesome meals and wedding cakes for the crews of musicians who came up to make their records.

When my husband and I were young and living in the Bay Area, we were turned onto Greens and ate at Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower's restaurants and and it turned out that we were living in one of the epicenters not only of a major earthquake (Santa Cruz, 1989) but also of a revolution in the way huge swaths of the population were starting to see the food they consume and the chefs who prepared it -- chefs have in subsequent years been recognized as more than cooks but as curators of food. Our batch of early health-foodie revolutionary tracts -- one of the Moosewood Cookbooks, Laurel's Kitchen, a copy of Adele Davis' Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit that I never used, intermingled with The Joy of Cooking and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and the New York Times Cookbook as the cooking canon of our time and place, one of the very best was the lovingly compiled Tassajara Bread Book. I have enjoyed recipes from other Tassajara cookbooks, but there is an attitude of calm support and peace with the natural proceedings you are about to engage in that is unlike any other cookbook I have ever read or cooked with.

And so we made many loaves of bread and relished the scent and texture and experience, experimented with the balance of white and wheat flour, and loved the results, even when the proceedings seemed to take the better part of a day.

Yet, despite all that calming Zen baking advice, I was always concerned that I'd gone past the smooth-as-a-baby's-bottom phase in kneading my dough and into the tearing-the-gluten-bonds phase that would make my bread tough and chewy. Every loaf of kneaded dough I've made has made me fret about that.

So the no-knead dough was a revelation. I was suddenly more anxious about overhandling the dough when you hardly touched it except to spill it out of its bowl and fold it a couple of times and let it rest, then spill it into a piping hot dutch oven that you cover and bake for about 20 minutes, and uncover and bake another 15. It turned out I needn't have worried -- that dough is about the most forgiving, beautiful stuff on the planet. I have not worried once about torn gluten strands since I started baking this way, and if I feel like making kneaded bread, I know I always can. But I am far more likely to do this instead.

Crusty, Crackling, No-Knead Bread

This is my version of the Speedy No-Knead Bread recipe that the New York Times published recently.

In a deep bowl, measure and stir:
3 cups flour (or 150 grams)*
1-1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 packet or about 1 tsp. yeast**

Pour in:
1-1/4 cups water (no warmer than 110 degrees F/44 C)
1/4 cup plain lowfat or whole-milk yogurt (or use all water if you wish to make this nondairy)

Stir the ingredients together for a minute or two, until you have a shaggy, sticky dough and all the ingredients are well blended. Scrape the dough down the sides of the bowl and cover the top of the bowl with a damp towel. If your house is chilly, make a place for your dough to rest by heating your oven to 200 F (95 C) for about five minutes and turning the oven off before you put the covered bowl inside the oven to rest from 3-8 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, fold it in half once, and fold it in half again. (Expect a loose dough that barely lets you handle it.) Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap for 30 minutes. After 10 minutes, start preheating your oven to 450 F (235 C) and put your 6- to 10-quart dutch oven and the lid in the oven to preheat as well (be sure to unscrew and remove the handle on your lid if it is not heatproof -- many of them aren't. If you have to do this, twist a small piece of aluminum foil and insert it into the hole where the lid screw was to seal the hole because the steam from the baking bread is what initially allows the beautiful crust to develop).

After the oven and dutch oven are preheated, use a pizza peel or a flexible cutting board to gather up your dough and put it into the dutch oven. Bake on the middle oven shelf for 20 minutes. Remove the dutch oven lid and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until the loaf is a rich golden-brown.

Remove dutch oven and set it on the stove. Take the loaf out of the dutch oven and set it on a counter or cutting board to cool for a few minutes, if you can wait that long before slicing and eating it.

*My current favorite blend is about 1/3 white winter wheat flour to 2/3 unbleached organic white flour.
**Fleischmann's or Star rapid-rise both work well -- and you don't have to proof them in warm water first.

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