Monday, November 12, 2007

A Knead For Speed

It may surprise you to hear that I do not bake. Not cookies, not cake, not even pie (and I love pie). So, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I took on baking bread, a notoriously difficult task. But, inspired by the one year anniversary of Mark Bittman's article about Jim Lahey's revolutionary no knead bread, I decided to tackle my fear. If thousands of New York Times readers and countless bread enthusiasts can embrace the minimalism and ease with which this bread can be baked, then dammit, so can I.

It was on November 8, 2006 that Mark Bittman, The New York Times' Minimalist published an article on his visit to a bread baking class taught by Jim Lahey, owner of the Sullivan Street Bakery. Lahey had e-mailed Bittman promising him a truly minimalist recipe for bread baking. It was later that week when rumor has it, New York City saw it's first yeast shortage. Evidently, most New Yorkers are as lazy and impatient as I am. You see, bread baking is known for requiring endless bouts of kneading and waiting for dough to rise (called proofing) in addition to careful ingredient chemistry. Lahey's method promised little effort, and crispy, crunchy doughy results. I recently read of an even quicker version of this bread on Apartment Therapy. All the bread needs is time, and you can even take a nap while the bread almost makes itself.

Intrigued by the prospect of literally making bread in my sleep, I proceeded to harass my coworkers for everything they knew about yeast. Later that night on my way home from work I bought bread flour and instant yeast packets. I already had the remainder of the ingredients (salt and water) so with caution and a prayer, I set forth to prove that I could bake. I mixed all of the ingredients in a large bowl, covered it with a kitchen towel and set it in a corner to do it's thing. It needs 6-8 hours to do 'its thing' (grow eerily in size and become goopy), so hoping that I wouldn't wake up under a bread dough blanket, I went to bed.

I awoke the next morning to find a truly frightening quantity of dough staring back at me, but decided to go with it. Because I find cooking spray creepy, I lightly oiled a baking sheet and turned my dough out onto it, rolling it into a ball, oiling it and covering it with cling wrap. I let it 'proof' another hour while I tidied up the apartment, and although still disturbed by the growing mass, I poured it into a metal pot and baked it. Then, for 30 minutes I paced as the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread made its way through every nook of my apartment.

Much to my surprise, what emerged when I opened the oven door was a perfect round loaf with a crusty, crunchy outside and a soft, chewy inside. Although I was shocked by the unexpected results, I didn't hesitate to start slicing into my creation. I decided to have breakfast for lunch, and slathered the bread with butter and jam. 10 minutes later, half of the loaf had disappeared, my apartment was covered in crumbs, and my mouth was sticky with jam. Clearly I had not only gotten over my baking phobia, but I had fully embraced it by gorging on bread.

My next goal is to try making the bread with some add ins, perhaps a nice focaccia style bread with rosemary, thyme and salt. Maybe if I grow more patient with age I'll try the original no knead recipe. But for now, here's how you can go about making the quicker no knead bread for yourself:

(Quicker) No-Knead Bread

3 cups bread flour
3/4 tsp regular yeast or 1/4 tsp instant dry yeast
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups water

1. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients in the morning before you go to work (or before bed). This should leave you with a thick, goopy dough. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and leave it in a warm spot in your kitchen. It should get a 6 to 8-hour rise.

2. When you come home from work (or wake up) lightly mist a counter or baking sheet with spray oil (or lightly oil it) and turn dough out on it. Shape it roughly into a ball, mist with oil again, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Let proof for about an hour.

3. Heat the oven to 450ºF, with a cast iron or metal pot in the oven to heat. When the dough is ready (it should have increased in size even more) roll it into the hot pot. It's okay if this is difficult and the result is ugly, do the best you can. My pot didn't have a non stick surface, so I lightly oiled it so I could remove the bread easily. Cover the pot with a lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 15 minutes to allow bread to brown.


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