October 29, 2010

Jim Lahey is the God of Bread

I might be a little late jumping on the Jim Lahey train, but I was given Lahey's My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method as a wedding gift, and have thus only just discovered how amazing his basic no-knead bread recipe is.

I hadn't made bread before we moved to Emerald Isle, but, what with my NO JOB and all, I've had some time on my hands to bake and cook more. In between, y'know, obsessively submitting resumes and applications to every job I can find.

I made my first loaf in the lovely bread machine we were given as a wedding gift, and I thought I had done a pretty good job. It was a honey whole wheat loaf, and it took so little effort and smelled and tasted so good that I thought myself the goddess of good bread. Barring, of course, the fact that I neglected to take the little kneading attachment out of the machine between "Rise" and "Bake," which resulted in my first loaf having a giant whole in the middle of its underside.

Then came Jim Lahey's recipe, so simple that it seemed foolproof, which was very attractive to me because, let's be honest, when I'm trying a recipe for the first time, I need some extra foolproofing.

I prepared the dough, which, truly, only consists of flour, water, salt, and yeast, and I let it rise (in a covered mixing bowl, out of direct sunlight) for the full 18 hours that Lahey recommends. Well, he actually recommends 12-18 hours, but, as Mark Bittman points out in his review of Lahey's method, "once you’re waiting 12 hours why not wait 18?"

Here is my dough, risen to a nice pock-marked, cellulite-y consistency. You have to have some respect for a recipe that'll give you a preview of what your butt's going to look like if you eat too much of it, right? Sorry, that was gross.

From there, Lahey's recipe calls for a very quick reshaping, dusting with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal (I chose cornmeal), and another two hours of rising, covered by a dischloth (not terrycloth, he wisely warns...I totally would have used terrycloth without even thinking about the possibility of lint in my bread).

The actual cooking is really simple. You heat your oven to 475 degrees, with your covered pot in the oven. This creates a kind of double oven effect, so that the high level of moisture in the bread gets trapped in a hot, covered space and becomes steam, thus creating the beautiful, crackly crust for which this recipe is famous.

This is my baby in the oven, uncovered after the initial 30-minute baking period. The remaining 15 or so minutes really serve as a time to darken the crust and accentuate the caramelized flavor that a good bread crust should have.

There it is, cooling for as long as I could manage to keep T away. He has this very strong desire to crack bread crust, and I have to admit that even I wanted to crack this baby as soon as possible.

Then the tables turned, and I sliced off this piece and was about to just dominate it when T shouted "Stop!" and ran to get my camera so we could document the beautiful crumb (the doughy inside of bread) before eating about half the loaf right then and there. We really balance each other nicely, you see.

I think the best thing about this recipe is that it forces you to respect the bread. Respect the bread? Did I really just say that? But yeah, I mean it. In his introduction to My Bread, Lahey says that "bread, especially the mass-produced bread we find most everywhere, no longer enjoys the respect it once had...too many people don't really know what bread should taste like, and too few have experienced the process of baking it themselves."

It's true. When I compare this flavorful, crisp, chewy, wonderful bread that I made for just pennies to the $3.49 loaf of soft, sponge-y rubbish sold at most grocery stores, it does make me wonder why bread has fallen to such a low priority in our country. It can't be because it takes time, because it really doesn't. You prepare the dough for three minutes, leave it alone for 18 hours, reshape it for three minutes, leave it alone for 2 hours, bake it for about 40 minutes, and you're done. That routine could be built in to many, many household routines across this country, and it would probably save families money in the long run.

Not to mention the pride it would give amateur bakers, as it has given me, to cut off a slice of their own bread each morning, toast it, and enjoy the flavor and texture of real bread. Maybe sometimes slathered with peanut butter and honey, too.

Here's Bittman's encounter with Lahey's no-knead bread, filmed at the Sullivan Street Bakery:

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