Saturday, September 17, 2011

In Search Of The Perfect Loaf...For Loafers

   Everybody has one of two movies that have made an impression on them in their lives... or maybe five or six. Either way, I believe we all walk around with internal movies playing in our heads, or at least the trailers for them. There's that deep voiced guy  saying... "In a world where everything was upside down...." you take it from there.
   I know that I cannot for the life of me try on clothes without thinking of Julia Roberts in that dressing room in Pretty Woman (hey, I told you this was a fantasy) or set a table without the memory of Babettes' Feast, and don't even get me started on the endless outfits in The Devil Wears Prada. But the movie that made one of the biggest impressions on me didn't concern stilettos or over the top food porn. It had to do with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin with a pissed off Kodiak bear on their ass in The Edge .

   In this movie Anthony Hopkins (Sir) is stranded out in the woods with Alec Baldwin, and what keeps them alive is that Hopkins' character Charles knows how to do stuff. The old fashioned way.  Ancient lore. Which was why after seeing this film, I really decided there were a few things I needed to know how to do well. Just in case of a zombie attack or 2012, I wanted to be prepared. It's not that I was a Girl Scout. Actually I was a pretty poor Girl Scout all things considered. The only badge I ever managed to get was The Story Teller Badge... and that could easily be confused with just being a good liar.
   My Girl Scout troop was unusual to say the least. We met in the Tiki bar in the basement rec room of our troop leader's house. Nine little Girl Scouts on barstools  glueing rhinestones onto empty pill bottles, making "perfume bottles" for our moms while our Troop leader and her assistant, the bored lady from next door, sipped cocktails and listened to Louis Prima.
  After picking me up from Girl Scouts a few times and getting the blinged-out pill bottle for Mothers' Day, my mom pulled me from the troop and the troop was disbanded. We never went camping, but come to think of it, that Tiki bar was pretty damn campy all by its' ownself. Who was that troop leader you may ask? Judy Garland? No, just some lady who taught us to Be Prepared cause even old Valium bottles can be re-purposed.
   But how does that get us back to basics? Well, I actually read my girl scout handbook and then got other books on " things one should know."  My great grandmother's Native Daughters of the Golden West Cookbook for one, filled with recipes that had no cooking times and talked a lot about "hot" fires in the stove and measuring things out in "dessert spoons." It also contained recipes for Squirrel, and venison, how to clean a wild duck and how to make candy. How to preserve crabapples and pickle watermelon and something called Bible Cake and Batchelor Bait Cake.
   Damn I thought, enough with the Valley of the Dolls Craft Hour..these dames were pre-pared... big time! I wanted to learn to do these things too. Because after the zombies attack somebody has to re-start civilization, and where better to start than with the staff of life... bread.
   Years ago my mom got a booklet in the mail advertising a bread machine. Back in the day, these machines were rare and pricy and totally off the table for my household. I however was fascinated by the booklet. It was filed with bread recipes. I studied them and then I started to bake. I'd get right up to the part that said put into the bread machine... and then what? I grabbed great Grandma Fanny's cookbook. It told me to knead and let rise and punch down and let rise again and then bake in a "hot fire" (about 450 degrees). I had made bread! Without an expensive machine. I quickly went through all the recipes in the freebee booklet.
   Over the years I made bread occasionally, but it was a long tedious process.So I stopped, but I was always intrigued by those fancy crusty (pricey) artisan loaves. And then came the New York Times Mark Bittman and No Knead Bread. I had to try it. I did and it worked... amazingly. Though my  bread was never as attractive as the loaves illustrated, it still tasted good. I knew however that it could be better so I went on a search to perfect The Easiest Bread In The World.
   One key turned out to be the flour I was using plain old organic, unbleached flour, I needed a true, high gluten, high protein flour to give my bread a kick in the pants and get it up on its' feet. Paula Wolfert had given me a big bag of Giustos Organic Ultimate Performer Unbleached Flour to try.

I tried it. It was amazing... but I still had the problem of spread (don't we all) and how to fix it. Paula lent me a Sassafras-La-Cloche-Brick-Oven Baker. Think of it as Spanx for your dough.
   It was a good thing she lent it to me because I was unable to buy one. They're sold out everywhere and I was on a waiting list. The deal with this baker is that it duplicates a brick oven in your stove. I was using two pizza stones, one on top and one on the bottom, but the enclosed oven provides perfect humidity allowing the steam in the bread to escape, leaving all those  gorgeous holes in the crumb. Also it helps the dough keep it's shape and not spread out in the hot oven. It also does not require a pan of hot water beneath the baking bread to provide moisture.
 So, I had the perfect flour and a great container to bake the bread in. The rest was easy.

Artisan Bread

Here's what to do:
In a large bowl mix together:
 3 cups of bread flour

 1/4 tsp of yeast
 2 and 1/4 tsp of Kosher salt
MIx all the dry ingredients together well and then add in:
 1 and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water
Stir everything together with a wooden spoon.
 You should have a thick, goopy mass of dough.

   Cover it tightly with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place to rest for at least 12 hours.
 If the dough is going to be sitting for more than 24 hours, store it in the fridge. It will keep there just fine for about 2 weeks turning more and more into sourdough as the days pass.
 When you are ready to bake the bread, flour a board, moisten your hands to prevent the dough from sticking, and scoop the  dough onto the board.
 Fold the dough over into a four corner package shape.
Flour a clean cotton dishcloth.
Rub the flour in well and then pick up the dough and gently lay it smooth side facing up on the dishcloth.
 Place the dishcloth and the dough in a tall bowl. This helps things keep their shape.

Cover the bowl loosely and let it rise again for another 2 hours.
One hour and 30 minutes into the rise, place the La cloche, both top and bottom, or a pizza stone, into the middle rack of a cold oven. Turn the oven on to 450 degrees.
 After the oven comes up to speed, let the stone or the La Cloche heat for at least another 30 minutes. You want every thing hot, hot, hot.
 When the bread is ready to go into the oven, take the lid off the la Cloche and dump the dough into the bottom half.

Put the lid on the la Cloche. If you are using a pizza stone, scatter some coarse corn meal on the stone before the bread dough goes on it to prevent sticking. You don't have to do this with the La Cloche.
 If you are using a pizza stone, put a pan of hot water under the bread as it bakes. This provides the proper moisture in the oven. 

 Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on,  then remove the lid and bake for an additonal 15 to 20 minutes until the bread is crisp and done.
When the bread comes out of the oven, take it out of the pan and place it on a cooling rack for at least an hour. Put your ear to the bread, you should hear a faint cracking noise. That's  not in your head...that's the bread "singing" to you, a sign of a perfect crust.

  I had baked a loaf of this bread a few days before and taken it with us to our weekly Farmers Market Picnic, along with some Cypress Grove Chevre and a good local white cheddar from Petaluma Creamery.

  While we were sitting on the grass enjoying the fine summer evening with friends, someone asked where they could get this bread they were eating. They thought I had bought it at the market. Wow!

   So there it is, non kneading, easy artisan bread. Believe me, I am no baker but I am now totally stoked about this bread and this method. Whether you bake it in a clay pot or a cast iron dutch oven or on a pizza stone, The Big Secret is using the best flour you can get your hands on. The other upside to this: Paula let me keep the Cloche..she knows an addict when she sees one.
    Coming up next, I go all Mughlai on some Eggplant. Follow along on Twitter @kathygori 


  1. Valium/perfume bottles? Now THAT's a memory! This bread is amazing - I want one of these...great action shots.

  2. I love you. Valium bottles eh? I am lusting for grandma's "Batchlor Bait Cake"Recipe.

  3. I am officially keeping my eyes open for a cloche. These are awesome instructions. My only thing is I can't believe you didn't eat that bread right out of the oven! Freshly baked bread is worth the burns.

  4. @Kristin,
    alas, the loaf was promised to someone else..but I did make a second loaf and that one we took to the Farmers Market. It's best to wait and hour for the crust to set up properly...I know it's hard especially when it smells sooooo good

  5. @Janis,
    that was one of many reasons that "Troop" disbanded.

  6. That bread looks absolutely GORGEOUS! Just the way I like it, lots of crust and nice big holes in the crumb. So hard to achieve, and believe me I've tried. Now I have to find one of those cloches… !

  7. Oh my. That is one gor-GEE-ous loaf of bread! I've been using plain ol' all-purpose flour for mine, but I may have to switch to high-gluten now that I can see just how big of a difference it makes... I never ever get a lovely airy crumb like yours.
    Heck, I might even have to add one of those cloches to my Christmas wish-list, even though I need another kitchen gadget like I need a hole in the head. :)

  8. @Frank,
    thanks so much..brought a loaf to my parents yesterday and the two old Italians loved it

  9. @Isabelle@crumb,
    thanks I had all sorts of problems until I started using the high gluten flour..Giustos and King Arthur are two of the best high gluten bread flours



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