Thursday, July 8, 2010

In which I pay $18.95 for a loaf of bread

My husband is a great reader of non-fiction books for some reason.   I don't understand why, but it's endearing and makes our jointly stuffed bookshelves look much more intellectual*.  Occasionally, though, even he will admit that many of those weighty three-hundred page hardbacks would be much better four page articles in The Atlantic**.    Even with all the charts and graphs, a bibliography, and a pithy forward from another person looking for publication credit on their own thesis-like topic, it's a chapter's worth of insight followed by about twenty five more chapters of padding.

After years of smugly looking on from between the pages of whatever novel I happened to be reading, I finally experienced this one-hit wonder sucker punch*** myself when I bought this cookbook.

 I'd read the famous New York Times article that had vaulted Jim Lahey from humble bakery owner to harbinger of a new artisan bread revolution.     I saw all the rave reviews and "best books for cooks" lists that lauded his book when it came out late last year, many citing his renowned recipe in detail right in the review. 

Did I immediately use the step-by-step instructions that were available to me, free of charge, everywhere on the web?  No, I did not****.   Did I perhaps follow along with the helpful online video?  No, I did not.  Instead, I went to Amazon and bought the book.  For $18.95.  (37% off list price, but still)

It is a beautiful book.  The photos are stunning.  There is a long introduction to our host, his early career moves, love affair with bread, with Italy, and with Italian bread.   Then, there is a detailed review of the trial and error process by which the recipe was developed, including amusing anecdotes and self-deprecating personal commentary.   Of course, you also get a complete scientific explanation of why the recipe works as well as it does.   And then, (drum roll please), the recipe itself.  Pretty much exactly as it has appeared everywhere.    Now, you do also get the multi-page, step-by-step photo walk through as well.   So that's something.

Now nearly halfway through, I find the next section covers the following:

Whole wheat version
Rye version
Corn version
Olive version
Irish soda bread version
Cheese version
Walnut version
Pancetta version
Carrot version
Fennel raisin version
Apricot almond version
Peanut butter & jelly version 
Shaped like a baguette version
Shaped like rolls version

Yep.  Padding.  Delicious-sounding, gorgeous-looking, padding*****.  

But was I mad about paying for padding?  Not one bit.  Because finally, having invested that $18.95 (and an afternoon's reading) in this recipe, I actually made the bread.   And it was AMAZING!!!!

Jim Lahey's Justifiably Famous No Knead, No Work Bread
If you want to get the book, believe me, I understand.  But if not, here's how to make it, on me.

3 c. bread flour
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. dry yeast
1 1/3 c. cool water
Wheat bran, corn meal, or additional flour for dusting.

You will also need a 4 1/2 - 6 quart covered cast iron or other heavy duty oven-proof pot.

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, salt and yeast together.  Add the water, and using a wooden spoon, mix until you have a wet sticky dough, about 30 seconds.   Make sure it's really sticky to the touch.   Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough has more than doubled in size.   This will take at least 12 hours, and up to 18 hours.  Longer is better.

When the fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour and scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece.  It will be loose, sticky, and cling to the bowl in long strands if everything has gone right.   Using floured hands or a dough scraper, nudge and tuck the edges of the dough towards the center to make it round.  

Place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth, which can leave lint) on your work surface and dust with the bran, cornmeal, or flour.   Gently lift the dough round onto the towel, seam side down.  If the dough is tacky on top, sprinkle with more bran, cornmeal or flour.   Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it, and let rest in a warm, draft-free spot for another hour or two.   The dough is ready when it is almost doubled in size.   Another test is to poke it gently with a finger.  If the indentation stays, it's ready.  If it springs back, let rise another 15 minutes.

Half an hour before you think the dough will be ready, preheat the oven to 475 (or 450 if using a convection oven) with a rack in the lower third position, and place your covered heavy pot in the center of the rack.   

Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover.   Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with a little more of whatever you were using for dusting, lift up the dough and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up.   Be careful!  This is one HOT pot.  Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.   Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut brown but not burnt, 15-30 minutes more.   Use a heat-proof spatula to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly.   Cooling is key to the crust, so don't slice or tear until it has cooled completely.   Give it at least an hour if you can stand it.

* For example, my dog-eared copy of James Clavell's Shogun is somehow elevated by its proximity to various tomes on the history of religion, 20th century world currency policy, and the life of Bach's forgotten cello sonatas.
** I think there's even more bang for your buck just skimming headlines from The Onion.  Everything you need to know in a single priceless line: "Girl Raised from Birth by Wolf Blitzer Taken Into Protective Custody."  Less is more, you know?
*** This is defined as buying the entire Blind Melon album when you really just wanted the bee girl song.
**** I did bookmark the page for later, though.  
***** To be fair, there's some good stuff on pizza and sandwiches at the end.  But there's also a recipe for bread crumbs.   Bread crumbs?  PADDING!!!!

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