It’s been a while since I’ve baked bread at home, although a slice of fresh, crackling, crusty bread is something I could devour any day of the week.
I made the now famous No Knead Bread a few times since Mark Bittman first wrote about the method in the New York Times two years ago. By now the recipe for this remarkably easy to make, deliciously hearty loaf has been blogged, You-Tubed, and otherwise replicated hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
What makes this recipe a standout for me is how much it resembles the bread I grew up eating; real Italian bread baked by neighborhood bakeries in small batches in clay ovens, often with crusts so burnished and substantial you could chip a tooth (or two) if you bit in too eagerly.
That bread is becoming harder to find. On my visits to Providence, Rhode Island – the place I’m from – I try to make a pilgrimage to some of my favorite bakeries before they dry up and disappear like dandelion seeds in the wind.
Here in St. Louis, a city that boasts a respectable Italian-American population, you will be served a version of Italian bread that I can only describe as tragic. Sorry, folks, but calling a pasty, pale blob of starch that a only toothless person could love Italian bread almost feels like a personal insult. Maybe it’s something in the water.
Palmieri’s Bakery on Federal Hill in Providence is one of those old-world bakeries whose products are the standard by which I judge all other bread. Although the last time I visited, I almost cried to see how the place had been spiffed up – the charming old wooden racks, counters and worn linoleum floor I always imagine dusted with a layer of flour and breadcrumbs were gone, replaced with sterile white formica and a shining tile floor. Oh well, remodel they must, but the bread was still the same: fragrant, dark-crusted and dense with a moist, open-textured, cream-colored interior.
Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery came up with the technique of mixing a wet dough comprising flour, water and a mere spot of yeast – barely laying a finger on it – and then letting if ferment slowly before plopping it into a “blazing hot” cast iron pot with a lid to bake. The resulting loaf looks like it should be sitting on a worn wooden table in a Tuscan farmhouse kitchen. How brilliant is he?
And the interior of the bread, or the “crumb”, is to die for; just look at the open, airy holes in my No-Knead bread:
The method is simple, but making this bread does require that you think ahead 24 hours, if that’s possible. I’m not much of a planner-ahead-er, but if I can do it so can you.
It also helps to have a bench scraper to help maneuver the sticky dough from bowl to counter, and a nice heavy pot (with a lid) for baking. I have a few lovely Le Creuset vessels lying around, but you don’t need to use one. Baking the dough in something like a round Pyrex casserole will work too, according to Lahey.
Happy 2009…now go bake some bread!
Rosemary Lemon No-Knead Breadfrom Williams-Sonoma:
1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 3/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
2 tsp. chopped lemon zest
Cornmeal or flour as needed
In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, salt, rosemary and zest. Add 1 5/8 cups water and stir until blended; the dough will be shaggy and very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at warm room temperature (about 70°F) until the surface is dotted with bubbles, 12 to 18 hours.
Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle the dough with a little flour and fold the dough over onto itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel, preferably a flour sack towel (not terry cloth), with cornmeal. Put the dough, seam side down, on the towel and dust with more flour or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise until the dough is more than double in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger, about 2 hours.
At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready, put a 2 3/4-quart cast-iron pot in the oven and preheat the oven to 450°F.
Carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over, seam side up, into the pot; it may look like a mess, but that is OK. Shake the pan once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until the loaf is browned, 15 to 30 minutes more.
Transfer the pot to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Using oven mitts, turn the pot on its side and gently turn the bread; it will release easily. Makes one 1 1/2-lb. loaf.
Adapted from Sullivan Street Bakery (New York City) and Mark Bittman, “The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work,” The New York Times, Nov. 8, 2006.