I’m still savoring the New Yorker December 3, 2012 food issue, nursing it like a café au lait in a bowl so large you get to warm up both hands as you lift it to your lips. The issue itself is comforting, inviting, lingering-inducing. You may have caught a glimpse of it sprawling across my table next to my salad earlier this week.
The article that’s on my mind now is one about young French female CEO Apollonia Poilâne, her business, her traditions, and her bread. Of course, it’s not really her bread, but her family’s bread, a legacy started eighty years ago in Paris by her grandfather Pierre Poilâne and their first eponymous bakery. And, one might argue that it’s not really her family’s bread, but France’s bread. Poilâne‘s signature miche, a 4-pound round loaf with a mild sourdough flavor, is often sold by the half, sliced in long tranches for tartines (open-faced sandwiches). In fact, the term pain Poilâne has become synonymous with sandwich bread (like the British term Hoover for vacuum).
Apollonia Poilâne has several ideas about the eating of bread, including:
- Bread should not steal the quality of the meal.
- I don’t believe in making bread at home.
- It’s terribly wrong to eat bread while it’s still cooling.
And yet, I broke every single one of those rules last week when I made Jim Lahey’s game-changing bread recipe. After two prior failed attempts, I was inspired to try baking this bread one more time after reading Tamar Adler‘s “How to Have Balance” chapter in which she says “Bread can be the thing you’re eating, not a prelude to the meal, or an afterthought.”
When we took the bread out of the oven, flipping it from the pot to the cutting board, we leaned in to hear the murmuring of the crust – microscopic cracks forming as the bread cooled and contracted. In Appolonia’s words, ça chante, it sings. We couldn’t wait for the bread to cool, and as we made the first cuts, the steam filled our noses, the rich scent of … bread, but really the feeling of home. We tore the first naked slice in half, chewing it, thoughtfully, entranced.
Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread
There are two very similar versions of the recipe – the one on the Sullivan Street Bakery site and the one that Mark Bittman published in the New York Times. I added a little extra yeast and salt – next time I’d add more salt. While there is very little work that goes into making the bread, it does require a lot of time, so you do need to plan in advance. The whole process from start to finish – mixing, two rises, baking – takes 15 – 21 hours. I like to start the dough the afternoon before, give it an 18-hour first rise, and then bake the bread around 11 am in time for lunch. If you want to cut down on time, check out this video that recommends adding red wine vinegar (!) to the mix.
Here are a few lessons that I learned along the way.
Make sure you have a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. I use a Le Creuset cocotte (French oven). The standard black knob that comes with the pot can’t sustain the high heat required; either replace it with a stainless one or remove the knob and fill the hole with some aluminum foil. The first time I made the bread, I used a covered tagine whose loose-fitting top not only let the steam out, but cracked when I removed it from the oven.
Don’t fuss with the dough. Refrain from peeking at it, lifting the plastic, kneading, or poking too much to check its rise. I put the bowl on top of the refrigerator to help me resist temptation.
The most difficult part of the whole recipe is transferring the dough into the hot pot. You want to do this quickly so you can cover the pot and get it back into the oven as fast as possible. I found that this was easiest when I placed the tea towel holding the dough on a cookie sheet so that I could let the dough tumble into the pot.
Makes one 1½-pound loaf.
- 3 cups all-purpose (or bread) flour, more for dusting
-1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
- 2 t salt
- 1 5/8 C warm water
- Cornmeal (or wheat bran)
Stir. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add water, and use your hands to stir everything around until blended. The dough will be very wet and sticky and will look shaggy – messy and scruffy and unkempt.
Rise. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles.
Rest. Lightly flour your counter and roll the dough out on it in a jiggly mass. Sprinkle the dough with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap (right on the counter) and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Rise again. Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with cornmeal (or flour or wheat bran). Put the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with more cornmeal (or flour or wheat bran). Cover the dough with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, the dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger. I placed the dough and towels on a cookie sheet and placed the whole thing on top of my refrigerator.
Heat. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat the oven to 450ºF. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic) in oven as it heats. If you’re not sure which of your pots to use, go with the larger one – the bread is beautiful when it’s shaped free form.
Transfer. When the dough is ready, grab your oven mitts and carefully remove the pot from oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up. There will be some cornmeal on what is now the top. It will look like a mess, but that’s OK. Shake the pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes.
Bake. Cover with lid and bake for 30 minutes, and then remove the lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is browned.
Cool. Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes. The cooler the bread, the easier it will be to cut. If you can wait that long.