Bread is fun. I like baking bread because it makes me feel like a survivalist. Our modern world is interesting because each of us get to choose one or two things we are good at and market that talent. For instance, when I was practicing law, I could make people sad just by making their phone ring (hence the joy I feel in the kitchen where almost everything I do makes several people happy every day)…that was my skill. I didn’t need to know how to fix my air conditioner because that was someone else’s skill and I could borrow that person and their skill for a fee. But, hundreds of years ago, I suspect that being able to make a simple bread was the difference between eating and starving in every family. Skills weren’t specialized and marketed, and bread was life.
My grandfather, Virgil, was a superintendant of Mead’s Bread bakery in Wichita Falls, Texas. There are those that remember him for baking giant twelve foot loaves of bread in rain gutters. But there are many folks with slightly graying hair in the Falls who have as one of their earlier memories the Christmas display at Mead’s where Santa handed out a warm, perfect, miniature loaf of bread to each child, wrapped in wax paper.
Bread touches us in a special place, a place in our souls that recognizes nurturing and basic happiness (that, my friends is The Meaning of Pie).
Bread has a reputation as being difficult, though. Sure, like everything else, you can make it fussy and difficult if you want to do so. But recently I came across the notion of “no knead” breads. This is a foolproof way for anyone to be a fantastic bread baker. I suspect I will be using this recipe for the rest of my life. There are two such recipes that I love. One was made famous by a baker named Jim Lahey who penned a cookbook about the craft. The following recipe is easier, and makes a minimum of three good loaves. The dough sits in the refrigerator for up to 7 days until you are ready to use it. And it gets better with each passing day. I beg you to try this. It is fun, and easy, and utterly delicious. This is adapted from the King Arthur Flour No Knead Crusty White Bread recipe which was apparently adapted from “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.
3 cups lukewarm water
6½ cups bread flour (32 ounces)
1 tablespoon salt (use table salt, not kosher)
2 packages (1-1/2 tablespoons) of Fleishman’s or Hodgson Mill Yeast (I have used both)
1. Using the scoop and scrape method (scoop your measure into the flour container and scrape off the excess with the flat side of a knife…weight-wise there is actually a huge difference in the ingredients between this and spooning into a measure…leading to bad results), measure the flour into a 6 quart food safe plastic container (with a tight lid). Do yourself a favor and make sure it fits in your fridge before you start. It really doesn’t matter what kind of container you use.
2. Add the remaining dry ingredients into the flour and stir them around to combine. Then add the water and stir like crazy with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds until all of the flour is moistened and a sticky dough has formed.
3. Leave the container out in a warm place to rise for two hours. It should double in volume, approximately. You can actually skip this step and go straight to the refrigerator, but I don’t recommend it. Once the dough has risen for two hours, put on the lid and put the container in the refrigerator for a minimum of one day, and up to seven days.
4. When you want to bake a loaf of bread, take out the container and remove as much dough as you want to use, roughly a quarter or a third of the total amount of dough. Put the rest back in the refrigerator for another day. Gently, form the dough into a ball or a slightly elongated log and place it onto a baking sheet that is lined with parchment and sprinkled with a little flour (we aren’t painting the Mona Lisa here…just do it…no need for perfection…just grab it, shape it a little and plop it onto the baking sheet). Allow this to rise for 45 minutes or up to an hour. It will sort of inflate a little and spread. At this point you might think it looks a little odd and unimpressive, but do not fear. Use a very sharp knife to cut three slits in the top, about a half of an inch deep.
5. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
6. Carefully place a small pie pan, or other smallish pan, of hot water in the bottom rack (for steam) of the oven. Then place the dough in the oven and bake for approximately 25 minutes until it is a deep golden to brown color. Remove the bread from the oven and cool on a rack. If you are unsure of whether it is sufficiently baked, use an instant read thermometer and insert it through the bottom of the loaf. It should register 200 degrees.
I have baked this bread often and the loaves turn out in different sizes and colors, but it has always been delicious. If you have never baked bread before, you really won’t believe that you created this great treat. You will actually be proud of yourself. I was.
Alternative Method UPDATE as of 04/12/13: I have mixed a few methods in baking this bread over the years. Now when I make this bread, I bake it in a dutch oven in the oven. By this I mean, I take an oven safe dutch oven or heavy stockpot (must be oven-safe) and preheat it in the oven as the oven heats. When it is time to bake the bread, I cut the parchment from around the loaf because it is a bit too wet to pull off. I take the dough, still attached to the parchment, and I pull out the dutch oven very carefully, and plop the dough into the pot. Put the pot back in the oven. Spray a water mister right into the pot and oven and then put the pot lid back on. After 20 minutes of baking, I carefully remove the lid and allow the loaf to continue to bake and brown. The total time is usually 25 to 35 minutes depending on the size of the loaf. For best results, weigh your flour so that you get precisely 32 ounces. It is faster and cleaner to weigh anyway. If you have not yet purchased a kitchen scale I highly recommend it. When I mix this dough, I just set my empty tub on the scale and zero it out. Then I pour flour into the bucket until the scale reads 32 ounces. No scooping or measuring necessary. Fewer dishes, too.
Do you have any strong childhood memories related to bread? I vividly remember visiting a Mrs. Baird’s factory when I was a small child. And, there was a big kerfuffle about a certain bread factory’s emissions in the 80’s before they closed it down. Can you imagine complaining about a neighborhood smelling like hot bread? What are your bread memories?