Sunday, March 30, 2008

Almost no-Knead Bread

Last night, D and I hosted a most enjoyable dinner party. The company was terrific, and the menu was as follows:

Appetizer: homemade flaky pastry rounds topped with membrillo (Spanish quince paste) and melted Camembert.

Main: sundried tomato and harissa paella (a slight modification of Elisa’s recipe – it was so good; thanks, Elisa!); arugula, blood orange, chevr√© and pine nut salad; homemade bread (see above).

Dessert: raspberry sachertorte (a dense and rich Viennese chocolate cake soaked in raspberry – rather than the traditional apricot – syrup, and coated with a shiny dark chocolate glaze).

I was quite pleased with how most of it turned out. But the highlight for me, by far, was the bread. I’ve never attempted to make bread at home before. I think I was worried that it would be a lot of effort for a mediocre result, since it is hard to make good bread in an ordinary oven. But, honestly, this was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. The crust was crackly but light, the crumb pleasantly chewy yet delicate, and the flavour was complex and tangy. Topped merely with some good unsalted butter, a slice of this bread was an absolute treat.

But this was no ordinary bread recipe. Ever since Mark Bittman published Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread in the NYT in November 2006, home cooks have been raving about Lahey’s invention of a “a truly minimalist breadmaking technique that allows people to make excellent bread at home with very little effort.” (Full article here:

The idea is to take some ordinary flour, a tiny amount of instant (also known as rapid rise yeast) and some water. The dough is left to hang about for 18 hours, to get the gluten going (thus taking the place of a traditional kneading). Then the dough is shaped, and left to rise for another 2 hours. After that, you bake it in a dutch oven, so that steam will help a good crust develop (also, my understanding is that the dough would be too wet to shape, so the dutch oven prevents the dough from spreading out all over the place).

Apparently, though, this recipe produced a bread with a fantastic crust and crumb, but not quite enough flavour. A recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated promised to improve matters by introducing vinegar and light ale into the batter. Also, so as to improve the bread’s shape, this recipe calls for a decrease in the amount of liquid in the dough, and compensates for this by introducing a tiny bit of kneading (you knead the dough 10 – 15 times before the second rising). Whatever the case, it’s still incredibly easy to do, and the results are better than this clumsy, novice baker ever would have thought possible.

Since I made zero modifications, I will simply give you the link to the recipe, together with an entreaty to try this if you love good bread but didn’t think you could make a good loaf at home.

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