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.

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