Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Making Bread Matter

Fig.1. Located in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, my son waits for his croissant.

Bread should matter more, according to Jim Lahey. It matters in France. It matters in Italy. Jim Lahey is the Founder of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City, and once you’ve tasted his bread, it will matter to you too.
Like most North Americans my mother bought sliced white bread on a weekly basis. A Nutella sandwich in that ultra-white, ultra-soft bread is still ingrained in the favourable part of my memory bank. I realize now that what attracts the consumer to sliced bread is not the taste, but the texture, convenience and shelf life. (In fact, the brains behind sliced bread purposely make their breads neutral so as not to sway consumers one way or another.)
Lahey learned his craft many years ago in Italy. He learned brick oven bread in San Gimignano and apprenticed at Forno Campo de Fiori in Rome, arguably one of the best bakeries in Italy and home to the famous pizza bianca.
The bread in Lahey’s book is a “no-knead bread” which rises slowly, very slowly, 12 to 18 hours in fact. According to Lahey, the inspiration for this method came from the Apicius collection of Roman recipes, circa 4th and 5th century AD. Lahey studied and researched how Romans made bread.

It didn’t seem likely to me that ancient Roman bakers did any
kneading at all. I figured they just shaped the risen fermented
dough and baked it. Inspired by this realization, I began to reduce
the amount of kneading in my recipes, and I started to see an
interesting relationship between kneading and fermentation. When
I worked the dough less, but let it rise longer, it seemed to
develop a structure as strong as, if not stronger than, what I had
been getting from a longer kneading and shorter rising time.
And to replicate a cloche, an ancient ceramic baking vessel, I
simply preheated a Dutch oven, then dropped in a round of dough.

Harold McGee, scientist and author of On Food and Cooking, explained the science behind Lahey’s no-knead bread in one of Mark Bittman’s New York Times article.

The long, slow rise brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side
alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other
and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough
is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more
mobile when there is a sufficient quantity of water, and so can move
into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.

McGee is basically stating what all bakers now know: the more you knead dough the tougher the bread will be because more gluten develops the longer you work it. Lahey’s method requires very little work, just time and patience; two traits that we need to be applying toward everything we eat and drink.

Fig.2. Potato pizza and mushroom pizza.
Lahey’s Italian bread is packed with earthy, fermented flavours. It tastes of wheat and yeast and grass and fire; it is slightly acidic, slightly sour, and sweet all at the same time.
Lahey’s book delves into the science of bread: the role of yeast, how heat and the Maillard reaction transform his bread, and the importance of cooling bread properly. Also in his book are all of the favourites found at his bakery:

Fig.3. Pizza bianca, which is sold by the foot, or any size you're able to illustrate with your hands and fingers.
Stecca, ciabatta, beer bread, apple bread, corn bread, fennel-raisin bread, and peanut butter and jelly bread to name but a few. Also included are many of Lahey’s pizza and focaccia recipes (including his pizza bianca as well as the best potato pizza on earth, which I consume copious amounts of whenever I’m in New York.) The last two chapters of the book are dedicated to paninis and recipes which call for stale bread, such as panzanella and pappa al pomodoro.
Lahey’s method makes bread accessible to all. If his ingenuity tells us anything it’s that good bread should once again begin at home.

Fig.4. Italian felone, pagnotta as well as French baguettes line the racks.
Basic No-Knead Bread Recipe
As found in Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread

Yield: One 10 inch round pagnotta loaf
Equipment: a 4 ½ to 5 ½ quart heavy pot (a Dutch oven such as Le Creuset)


3 cups bread flour (400 grams)
1 ¼ tsp table salt (8 grams)
¼ tsp instant or other active dry yeast (1 gram)
1 1/3 cups cool (55 to 65 degrees) water (300 grams)
wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour for dusting


In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, table salt, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch; if it’s not, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with a plate, tea towel, or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature (about 72 degrees F) out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours and (my preference) up to18 hours. This slow rise-fermentation-is the key to flavour.

When the first fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface (a wooden or plastic cutting board is fine) with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long, thin strands (this is the developed gluten) and it will be quite loose and sticky-do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

Place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth, which tends to stick and may leave lint in the dough) or a large cloth napkin on your work surface and generously dust the cloth with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Use your hands or a bowl scraper or a wooden spatula to gently lift the dough onto the towel, so it is seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, making an indentation about ¼ inch deep, it should hold the impression. If it doesn’t, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 ½ to 5 ½ quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran, lift up the dough, either on the towel or in your hand, and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. Don’t slice or tear into it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.
Fig.5. Peanut-butter and jelly bread.

Fig.6. Chiocciola bread, toasted pecans with a homemade orange glaze.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pigs in a Blanket-Italian Style

Fig.1. It's just another way to make a sausage pannini but cooking everything together really gives it a special taste and texture.

I’ve wanted to make these for a long time and there was no better day than yesterday; the Canadiens played an afternoon game followed by the Super Bowl, and Lisa and I were hosting. Here’s my version of a game day classic, it might be a guilty pleasure, but, in doing it yourself you know exactly what’s in it, and, without sounding to proud, it tastes a hell of a lot better than any over-salted, frozen junk being marketed as “game day food.”

Stecca di Salsiccia (Pigs in a Blanket)
Makes 9 sausage rolls


Pizza Dough
9 Italian sausages, boiled for 20 minutes, dried and cooled
3 onions, sliced thin and caramelized

The recipe for the dough comes from Jim Lahey’s new cookbook, My Bread. Lahey is the owner of New York’s, Sullivan Street Bakery—a place that can only be described as bread and pastry heaven, (much more on Sullivan Street Bakery in my next post) If you don’t feel like making the dough yourself, buy it, most Italian pastry shops sell ready-made pizza dough.
Below is Lahey’s Stecca recipe; one of many pizza dough recipes found in his book. The genius to Lahey’s approach is in his long, slow, rising technique, so plan ahead.

Stecca Bread

3 cups bread flour
½ tsp table salt
¾ tsp sugar
¼ tsp instant or active dry yeast
1 ½ cups cool (55 to 65 degrees F) water
additional flour for dusting
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¾ coarse sea salt

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, table salt, sugar, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.

When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Fold the dough over itself two or three times and gently shape it into a somewhat flattened ball. Brush the surface of the dough with some of the olive oil and sprinkle with ¼ tsp of the coarse salt (which will gradually dissolve on the surface).

Place a tea towel on your work surface and generously dust it with cornmeal or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with cornmeal, or flour. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely cover the dough to cover it and place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Fig.2. The caramelized onions sweeten the rolls, if onions aren't your thing try chopped olives or sun dried tomatoes-whatever you decide to use just make sure it's not wet; anything marinated in oil or vinegar has to be well drained and dried.

Fig.3. I didn't have a large enough cookie sheet so I used two small ones that both fit in the middle rack of my oven. If your cookie sheets don't both fit in the middle rack you'll have to keep an eye on the rolls as you cook them, alternating oven levels. You can also use aluminum foil to cook the rolls on. Space the rolls at least two inches apart.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F and set the middle rack. Cut and form the dough into nine small pieces, about the size of a small apple. Flatten the dough, and then using your knife, cut dough into a triangle (keep the pieces and reform them together). Place the sausage and one tablespoon of caramelized onion at the wide end of the triangle (see Fig.2.) and roll tightly, making sure the dough isn’t loose (I roll it halfway making sure the onions are secure, then pick up the roll and pull the triangular point of the dough over, gently stretching it. I then press the tip of the dough until it holds, if the tip of the dough doesn’t hold, wet the dough a little on the contact points). Place the rolls on a large, greased cookie sheet, brush with remaining olive oil, sprinkle with remaining sea salt and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fregola di Sardegna

Fig.1. Fregola is available in most specialty Italian stores, I purchase mine at Charcuterie Noel in Montreal North.

For this post we remain in Sardinia. Fregola is pasta made with coarsely ground, durum wheat semolina. It’s often referred to as Sardinian couscous—a description which most likely stems from how natives attempt to describe fregola to the curious, hungry tourists.
Fregola pasta has a very distinct taste that can best be described as a cross between bread and rice. The wheat is formed much the same way as regular couscous but fregola is toasted after it's dried.
Fregola is cooked much the same way as regular pasta and can be prepared and served like most rice or pasta dishes. Fregola also has the ability to stay al dente for a long time and, as such, makes an ideal dinner party meal as it can be made a few hours ahead of time. I’ve also noticed that the fregola requires a bit more salt in the boiling water than regular pasta; this is partly because the pasta is toasted, and because coarse semolina absorbs water at a slower rate than fine semolina; it also explains why the fregola remains al dente longer than regular pasta.

Fregola di Pomodoro ed Arselle (Sardinian dialect which translates to fregola with tomato and clam.)
Serves 6 to 8

Fig.2. Arselle are actually baby clams found in the waters around Sardinia; overfishing has caused the number of arselle to decrease dramatically. The clams in this picture come from Les Iles de la Madeleine. If clams are not your thing, this dish can be made with minced meat or ground sausage.

500 g bag of fregola
4 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans of drained clams, liquid reserved
1 cup dry white wine
1 28oz can of plum tomatoes
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and begin the soffrito by cooking the onion and garlic over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the clams (without the clam juice) and cook for 3 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium high and add the wine, reduce by half then add the clam juice, the plum tomatoes and the parsley. (Break the tomatoes apart with your hands or wooden spoon.) Turn the heat back to medium and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta, (reserve about a cup of the pasta water, also, use a colander with small holes when dealing with fregola or most of them will go down the drain.) and add the fregola to the clam sauce—if the pasta seems dry or thick, use some reserved pasta water to loosen it up. Simmer in the pan for a few minutes and serve hot. With this kind of cold we’re currently experiencing, this is just the kind of dish that will warm you up.

Charcuterie Noel, 5733 boul Leger, Montreal-Nord, QC, H1G 6J2. (514) 323-0256‎