A few years ago, when I was operating the restaurant with still reasonably high hopes, Tim Boyko came in with a large covered ceramic pot. He opened it to show me a loaf of bread he’d baked. It smelled the way I wanted everything to smell, the ceramic pot was beautiful, and I had no idea why he was showing it to me. An idea to sell bread pots? Whatever. He’s a fabulous gourmet cook, and maybe he was just stopping by to share.
I made my first bread, a large braided white loaf full of wheat germ and sesame seeds, for a picnic with my high school boyfriend. It was in 1967, I think. That was before the Internet, so I have no idea where I got the recipe. I used to make bread in college, back in Tassajara Bread Book days. I lived in a house with a bunch of people, and it made me feel like a hippie earth mother food co-op shopping back-to-the-lander. I fed the house with bread, homemade yogurt, home-canned peaches, and lots of spaghetti sauce … While I was in law school, my next door neighbor, a psychiatrist with a son the same age as Jason and a similarly hectic life, made bread every day and shared it. All you had to do was walk into her kitchen and take some, if you can imagine. Cookies also. You rock, Judy. I made it in St. Louis, too. And then somehow got out of the habit — mostly because it is so labor-intensive and I’m so pressed for time. Or because I didn’t like cleaning up afterward.
Anyway, what Tim was showing me, and what I failed to fully appreciate, was the new way of baking bread. No kneading. Waiting replaces kneading. And fabulous crunchy crust replaces soft crust. Seat of the pants replaces measuring. Why? Because you can make bread anywhere there is an oven or a cooktop. Including a little walk-up apartment in Italy, or in a teardrop-shaped camper barely large enough to hold a bed.
So I tried it out last night. Not perfected yet, but it’s pretty darned easy.
Mix warm water and just a little bit of yeast. More about the yeast later. Add some salt. Add flour. Stir for about a minute. You make a wet, sticky dough — not kneadable. Then you set it aside with plastic wrap loosely on top and let it sit for a long time — up to 20 hours. It will be all bubbly on top. Then refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
Time to bake some bread. Cut off a double-fist sized chunk, and let it sit on a cutting board dusted with cornmeal or flour for a couple of hours, covered with a towel.
Heat the oven to somewhere between 350 and 450, depending upon how big your loaf it and whether your baking dish has a cover (higher if it does). Ovens vary, so you’ll have to experiment with temperature anyway. Put the empty baking dish in the oven. Also put a pan of water in the oven, but only if your baking dish does NOT have a cover. Everything should preheat for about 30 minutes.
When the dough has doubled in size, dust the top barely with flour and cut slashes with a serrated knife. Open the oven and drop the dough blob in the hot baking dish. Cover, if you have a cover, bake for about 20 minutes (smallish loaf, longer if larger), then uncover and bake till done, another 10-15 minutes. How can you tell if it’s done? Knock on it — should sound kind of hollow. Cool. Then slice with a serrated knife.
Every evening, or every morning, grab a glob of dough out of your bowl in the refrigerator, and prepare that day’s bread. As the days go by, the dough will take on a sourdough flavor as well. The yeast will be sufficient because you’re letting the dough rise for so long; it has plenty of time to do its work, and you won’t end up with that overpowering yeast flavor that you get when you start with lots of yeast. The long proofing time and the high moisture content also allow the gluten to develop without kneading.
OK, you need starting proportions for your ingredients? 6 cups warm water, 1 teaspoon yeast, 3 Tablespoons Kosher or sea salt, 13 cups of flour. 6-1-3-13 You should really measure by weight, but that will work as a starting point.
I’m experimenting with more healthy ingredients (especially interested in incorporating flax seed meal and whole-wheat flour, maybe other grains …). I’ll let you know how that goes.
And now what’s this about a cooktop? Naan, of course. Take a glob of dough, let it sit for awhile. and then roll it out. Fry it in a saute pan or on a griddle with a little ghee (clarified butter) or oil, flipping to get both sides. Heck, you could make Indian bread while camping. You could probably make it in a dorm room. Come to think of it, you could probably make a crusty loaf in a cast iron dutch oven in a campfire.
Bake bread. Share it with your neighbors.