Peace goes into the making of a poem as flour goes into the making of bread.
About a month ago, on a frigid night in North Beach, a friend asked me if I cook everyday. While there was a part of her that looked appalled at the possibility that I did, it seemed there was another part of her that really wanted me to say yes. As much as I would have liked for the answer to have been affirmative, it was, of course, no, or at least I initially thought it was. But the more I considered it, I began to think that it all depends on your definition of cooking. For example, do sandwiches count? There are, after all, some pretty elaborate sandwiches out there and I happen to be a huge fan of the sandwich. And what about painstakingly chopping vegetables for a salad and making a vinaigrette? Or roasting vegetables, one of the simplest ways you can prepare them? Are these examples of cooking or are they too basic to qualify? I also then started to think about what would actually be so wrong with cooking–really cooking–everyday. If we can make time to go the gym, to to respond to emails and to spend countless hours at the office, why is making a meal for ourselves on a daily basis viewed as an impossible task, or a luxury? An even better question is, why is it (or sleep) the first thing we sacrifice when confronted with a time crunch? There may be only 24 hours in a day, but why can’t an hour or two be unequivocally devoted to our well-being?
Driven by these thoughts, I’ve tried to continue to be good about cooking now that the semester is in full swing. There are definitely moments when I take shortcuts (open-faced grilled cheese gets a lot of love in this house), but, more often than not, I still strive to make interesting and creative things that can hopefully turn into (or, as in the case of sweets, be a part of) a good brown-bag lunch. This is partly why bread has been on my radar lately, and I’ve been conducting numerous bread baking experiments.
While I’m convinced that I may just be one of the last people on earth to make Jim Lahey’s famous no-knead bread, I would like to make it clear that I’m not at all bothered by this. I’m one of those people who tends to believe that a) although a bit of a cliche, most things really are better late than never and b) there’s always room for latecomers on any bandwagon. Truth be told, the reason for my belatedness may be somewhat silly. There was a time at the beginning of my grad school career when I wouldn’t allow myself to get up from my books to make dinner. Seminars, the thought of exams and paper writing trumped everything and dinner would be carried home in a plastic bag and eaten at all hours of the night. This is not to say, however, that I didn’t read about food; I allowed myself that luxury, dreaming of the day when I would finally have time to cook for myself. And even though I couldn’t have fathomed making it at the time, I can still recall reading the Mark Bittman article that appeared in the New York Times and put Lahey on the map.
Needless to say, that stage of my life is (thankfully) over. Although I probably still take myself and my work too seriously, I came to the grand realization several years ago that the world would not end if I didn’t read each and every assigned page of reading, not to mention all the articles available on any given topic. So, instead of being obsessed with pages/texts read (or unread), I’m now obsessed with the various ways to bake bread. While most baking involves a fair amount of work–measuring precisely, whisking, spooning the batter into tins or a cake pan, there’s something so refreshingly simple about the act of bread baking bread–particularly when using the no-knead method; with as few as four ingredients (flour, yeast, water, salt) and little effort, you can create something hearty and substantial. All you have to do is put the dry ingredients in a bowl, pour the water and oil in and then let the mixture sit for 12-18 hours. You can mix everything together before going to bed and, by the time you come home from work the next day, the bread will almost be ready to go in the oven. If only I had realized all those years ago what I was missing. Ahh, the beauty of hindsight.
But there is a catch here: something I discovered while using The Italian Baker is that I actually like kneading bread. I think it’s important to work with the dough (I now find myself touching all the dough and batter that I make; I’m convinced I know by touch–as if by magic– how it will turn out), to feel its texture and elasticity. The few times I’ve made the Italian Rosemary Bread, there’s been a moment when I’ve know that the dough was just right; it felt like it had come alive in my hands. I suppose I simply like feeling like an integral part of the process, rather than like a superfluous agent who can only speculate based on the appearance of the dough.
And there’s another catch, too. As much as I liked the loaf that emerged from the oven–when I cut into it in that impatient way of mine, I discovered a crispy exterior that covered a soft and chewy center–and reveled in the hollow sound that it made when I knocked on its bottom, I found the process of using a Dutch oven to be a little tricky. This may be because I had a curious puppy sniffing around my legs as I tried to roll the loaf from the tea towel into the preheated Dutch oven (sadly, I think it lost its perfect round shape at just this moment). Then, removing the bread from the pan, even without a puppy jumping around, was equally difficult. Dutch ovens get hot and, despite using pot holders, I could feel the heat; to ease my burden, I hastily set the Dutch oven down on the first available surface–a chair, which is now nicely decorated with scorch marks. This was, however, my fault and not the recipe’s (it warns you to be careful). Good bread for the price of scorch mark is certainly a novel idea. It’s not a price I’ll always be willing to pay, but for my first no-knead attempt, I think things could have gone a lot worse. I do, after all, love my feet more than good bread, but I’m still willing to risk them for another round.
Pane Integrale (Whole Wheat Bread)
Yields one loaf (about 1 1/4 pounds bread)
Adapted, with only the slightest modification, from Jim Lahey’s “My Bread“
When making bread, I tend to rely on weight measurements as compared to volume; it’s both easier and more precise. In the past several months, my kitchen scale has truly become my favorite kitchen tool, only slightly behind my standing mixer.
300 grams (2 1/4 cups) bread flour
100 grams (3/4 cup) whole wheat flour
8 grams (1 1/4 teaspoon) table salt
2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) instant dry yeast
300 grams (1 1/3 cups) cool water (I don’t take its temperature, but if you do, aim for 55-65 F) + a tablespoon to several more if the dough isn’t wet and sticky after you’ve initially mixed it
cornmeal for dusting
-In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the two flours, salt and yeast.
-Add the water and, using your hand or a wooden spoon, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough. If the dough doesn’t seem to have reached this consistency, add more water and mix until wet.
-Cover the bowl with a wet towel and and let sit at room temperature until the mixture is dotted with bubbles and the dough has doubled in size (12-18 hours; in the Bay Area, especially on a cold day, a little longer might not hurt).
-After the first rise, dust a work surface with flour (I used all-purpose). Use a rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece.
-Using your hands, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center; you want to shape the dough into a ball, tucking in the edges so that it becomes round.
-Place a tea towel on your work surface and dust it with cornmeal. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down. If the dough is overly sticky, lightly dust it with cornmeal.
-Fold the ends of the tea towel over the dough and place it in a warm spot to rise for an addition hour or two. You will know the dough is ready when it has again almost doubled in size and when, if you gently poke it with your finger, it holds the impression.
-As the bread is completing its second rise, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a 4-5 quart heavy pot (or Dutch oven) in its center. Then, preheat the oven to 475 F.
-Once the bread is ready, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and remove the lid. -Unfold the tea towel and quickly (and, again, carefully) invert the dough into the pot with the seam side up.
-Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.
-Then, remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is, as Lahey describes it, a “deep chestnut color”; this should take an additional 15-30 minutes.
-Use a heatproof spatula to carefully lift the bread out of the pot. Then, place on a rack to cool.