Monday, December 18, 2006

Tis the season for sticky fingers

A little over a month ago, I saw a link on the New York Times Online to a recipe for No-knead Bread, an article by Mark Bittman who writes the Minimalist column for the Times. He featured the recipe made famous by Jim Lahey, a breadmaker in New York City; Sullivan St. Bakery makes great boules of bread, crusty loaves ready for a pairing with a slather of butter and a sprinkling of sea salt. Mr. Lahey said that this recipe is so easy, even a 6 year old can make great bread.

After reading the recipe a few times, I decided to try making my own bread. I've made fruit breads before, the no-yeast needed kind, but never a plain loaf of bread. Other bloggers, Joey and Lori, have chronicled their own experiments with bread making in the past; they've acknowledged how restful making bread can be, not to mention the delight in having your own loaf of bread, made by your own hands. Since my right arm is affected by carpal tunnel syndrome, I've avoided too much pressure on my wrist for months, and the no-knead aspect of the Sullivan recipe seemed just right for me. In lieu of kneading, the dough rests for a minimum of 12 hours, preferably 18 hours.

Before I began, I read a lot of the other bloggers writing about their attempts at the bread; most of them were in N. America and Europe. Many of them were successful, several had failed at getting the right kind of flour or using too much water. And the latter was what I was most worried about (ok, second most worried about after what pot to use, see below). I'm not much of a food scientist, but other bloggers have commented that the humidity in the tropics makes a lot of the Martha Stewartesque cooking/baking projects less than ideal. It's also dang hot to be baking, and my kitchen doesn't have airconditioning. So I knew that I had to adjust the water in the recipe.

The basic recipe calls for the ff to be mixed and then left alone for 18 hours: 3 cups flour (all purpose or bread. I used Gold Medal All purpose flour.), yeast, 1 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1 5/8 cups of water. Several of the bloggers who've tested the recipe said that the amount of water was too much, and that the video showed Mr. Sullivan scooping in flour without tamping it down the scoop, which would make it 3 heaping cups of flour, changing the ratio of flour to water from the actual recipe. Well give the guy a break folks, he's been making the bread for ages, so he doesn't have to be exact any longer! I planned to try one attempt sticking to the recipe as written, then planned another using less water.

Sure enough the first attempt was too wet, and nearly impossible to work with. My kitchen probably goes up to 28-29 degrees celcius during the day, while the estimated room temperature in the recipe states to leave the dough in a warm, draftless room of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Sorry I'm not about to recalculate that here, but needless to say, my kitchen is way warmer than the average N.American/European one. The humidity soaked in by the dough made the blob look like a wet oatmeal mixture. I added more flour on the workspace, and added more flour to the dough, but by the time I went through all that, the proofing for another 2 hours and then the baking time of 50 minutes, the bread was looking a bit too flat, and had a burnt top alongside a not-quite-cooked interior. Attempt 1: failure.

Attempt 2 had less water and a different yeast. The first time, I only had a packet of active yeast, the red star brand I think. And I dumped the packet's contents in, without measuring. Not a good idea. This time around, I made sure I only had 1/4 teaspoon of the bubble makers, and used the instant yeast as indicated in the recipe. 1.5 cups of water, same flour and salt combination. The dough looked a lot better, after 18 hours it actually looked like dough, not a wet rag imitating dough on a bad day. I folded it over to create a seam, let it rest for 15 minutes and then another fold onto a kitchen towel dusted with flour for the last rise for 2 hours. Plopped it into the pot and 50 minutes later (30 covered, 20 uncovered), I had bread! A perfect crust, and the bottom was cooked this time. Am pleased as punch, and happily filled with freshly made bread this morning. Made with my hands and the luxury of time.

The biggest concern I had making this was the issue with the cooking implements. I don't have an oven, and make do with a turbo broiler. Not too bad when I need to bake brownies, but this was bread. I did more online research and thought it would work. But while reading the bread recipe and other bloggers comments, I was starting to worry a bit more since I didn't have a Le Creuset enamel covered pot, or anything that would fit what was within the parameters stated by the recipe. Then another troll down online recipes gave me a eureka moment. One blogger said that she or he used a crockpot bowl. So I dug out the old crockpot, found a ceramic plate that would withstand the heat - instant enamel pot with lid.

I'll be tinkering a bit with the recipe to see if I can add some olive oil without damaging the texture of the dough. And maybe some walnuts. I heart walnut bread.

12/19 addendum: a third attempt last night was sort of successful. A much longer resting period (24 hours) resulted in a light sourdough flavor, but the crockpot needs to be pre-heated for more than 25 minutes, as the bottoms tend to take forever to cook! I've had nice crusts, with a chewiness to the bread that's perfect for hearty meals.


ChichaJo said...

Woohoo! I am so going to make this soon :) Most probably after the holidays when I may have the "luxury of time" :) Thank you so much for posting in such detail! It's appreciated :) BTW, what instant yeast do you use?

christine said...

Yes, thanks for the blow-by-blow. It's a big help for those of us who are virgin bread-makers. :)

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