Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Sheesh, I’m behind with this posting stuff. I made this bread on Easter. Which turned out to be apt timing, since the recipe is indeed miraculous. The Web has been abuzz about it ever since it was written up in The New York Times in November, and now my mom’s raving about it too. The ingredients are minimal—just flour, a bizarrely tiny bit of yeast, salt, and water—and the process nontraditional, but boy howdy, does it work like a charm. Even for me, impatient nonbaker with substandard cookware that I am, it yielded beautiful, bakery-quality loaves of bread, moist and chewy within (with “a nice crumb,” as the foodies say) and crackly-crisp without. As they sat all golden and bubbly on their cooling racks, I kept staring at them in awe and disbelief. I made that!
The recipe requires a long span of time, but the actual work involved is minimal. I mixed up the ingredients on Saturday night and let the dough rest until early afternoon on Sunday, which worked perfectly: I had bread by dinnertime. Though a little twisty, the directions were essentially easy to follow, and my slight variations in technique didn’t seem to cause any problems. The original recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon instant yeast, but through Internet commentary I learned that 1/3 teaspoon regular yeast will work just as well, so that’s what I used. The original also asks you to set the dough on a well-floured cotton towel to rise, but both Internet commentary and common sense suggested to me that that’s just silly—setting wet, sticky dough on a cotton towel, no matter how well-floured, is just going to result in a messed-up towel, and is not going to be particularly convenient when your sticky dough clings to said towel as you’re trying to ease it into a 450-degree baking dish. I used plastic wrap instead, which proved really helpful as a vehicle for picking up the dough and flipping it into the dish.
My biggest concern was that I didn’t have anything approaching a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered oven-safe pot. All I had was a 2-quart Corelle baking dish with a Pyrex lid. But the magical bread didn’t let me down. I divided the dough in half at the end of Step 2, let both halves rise two hours, cooked them in succession, and voila, I got two perfect smallish loaves. You gotta try this!
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast or ⅓ teaspoon regular (active dry) yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed
1. In a large bowl, combine flour (measure by dipping, not spooning), yeast, and salt. Add 1⅝ cups water and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Place a piece of plastic wrap at the bottom of a large bowl, dust with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal, and put dough seam side down on plastic wrap. Dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover bowl with a cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Holding edges of plastic wrap, lift dough out of bowl and turn over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that’s OK. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 20-30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Yield: one 1½-pound loaf
Time: 21 hours (only about 1 hour actual work)