Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I've been playing around with a method of breadmaking that's new to me, but apparently centuries old, thanks to reading about it first on Lauredhel's blog. After doing a lot of digging around online, I found not only the NYT article that Lauredhel referenced, from Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey, but pages and PAGES of discussion of the technique by earnest and dedicated bread bakers all over the world. This article, when it hit in 2006 (I am RIGHT ON TOP OF CURRENT EVENTS, YO), created quite the stir, apparently. Probably the best and most thorough discussions I found were in the comments at TheFreshLoaf.com.
After reading and reading and reading, and watching the video on the Times' site more than once, I took the plunge. This bread requires literally 5 minutes of actual labor, and about 20 hours of waiting. If you like rustic breads, and authentic-tasting French boules (Bella and I do, Alex doesn't), then this bread is for you. It's not a wimpy, soft bread. It's a beautiful, golden-crusted, chewy loaf with plenty of texture in the thick, crispy crust. I'll let you go to the Times page and read the recipe, watch the video, and then check out the discussion at The Fresh Loaf. But basically I will tell you that you combine flour, salt, water, a TINY bit of yeast, barely mix it together, then leave it to sit for 18 hours, during which time it bubbles and percolates and makes magic in the form of gluten, and rises impressively. At that point, you don't knead--you just take out the dough and fold it over 2 or 3 times, then leave it alone for another couple of hours. It will feel like neglect, but it will taste so good!
The "twist" is that you'll be baking this bread at high heat--450 to 500F--inside a covered, heavy pot. In the video, Jim Lahey used a le Creuset Dutch oven, so that's what I used. (I have since read that le Creuset does NOT recommend using their cookware in the oven at such a high heat, because it could crack or otherwise be damaged, but I've seen a whole lot of people doing it.) The recipe lends itself ideally to "campfire cooking," or even using a cast-iron Dutch oven in a hot outdoor grill. There are dozens of ways of doing it, but the keys appear to be the slow rise time and the introduction of the dough into a HOT pot with a HOT lid. To keep from damaging the plastic handle on my Dutch oven, I covered mine with a le Creuset skillet that was actually designed to do double-duty as a pot lid.
So far, I've only tried the white flour version, pictured above, and another test of 100% whole wheat flour. I used wheat bran to dust the tea towel, and had no problems with the dough sticking (it's a VERY sticky dough), as did many people who used flour or cornmeal to dust the tea towels. The whole wheat version didn't have the oven spring of the white flour loaf, but that was to be expected, since I didn't add any vital wheat gluten to the flour or cut it with any white flour. It still tasted DARN good, and had the thick, crispy crust of the white loaf.
Check out the links, and try this bread. You really have nothing to lose but 5 minutes of your time (if that)! And just so you know, this is a loaf that cries out for a flavored olive oil with roasted garlic bits to dip it in, so have some of that ready. Also, use a bit more salt than the recipe calls for.