I am not a huge fan of commercial yeast. First of all, I don’t particularly care for the flavor, then I often find the crust way too thin for my taste (although I love deliciously crisp and tasty poolish-based baguettes such as the one I once tasted in North Carolina at Lionel Vatinet’s La Farm Bakery) and finally I am convinced that levain breads are nutritionally more wholesome (see Professor Robert Low’s article on the health benefits of levain).
So, coming to the Bay Area for a 3-week stay (which somehow morphed into 4-week one), I brought with me a dry nugget of my levain à la Gérard, which I diluted it in lukewarm water upon arrival and mixed the day after with some wheat, spelt and rye flours. After playing dead for 24 hours, it came back to life with a vengeance and I was able to bake with it only 24 hours after its resurrection.
However, since I didn’t have access to a mill, I had to used store-bought whole grain flours and the taste was just not the same. Let’s put it that way: knowing and loving what this levain can do, it was hard to settle for less. So after a while, I told myself “Oh, well! Forget about it, at least I tried. There are so many good bakeries in the Bay Area that I’ll just go and buy bread every day. Let me dump the levain (gasp!) and save myself the chore of feeding it twice a day.” And so I did…
But I failed to take into account the fact that the urge to bake has an irresistible grip on me. I just love making bread, I have it in my blood, I can’t stop doing it. So, suddenly bereft of levain (a novel kind of experience for me since, back home, I am always swimming in a surplus of the wild beasties), I cast around for alternatives and stumbled upon Jim Lahey’s My Bread – The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method. I decided to give it a try.
The book is esthetically very pleasing. The photography, by Squire Fox, is gorgeous and the recipes are very clearly presented. So far I have only tried two of them, the Olive Bread and the Peanut Bread. Both were completely hassle-free. I would say these are the easiest breads I ever made, much simpler actually than the ones to be found in Kneadlessly Simple.
The proportions given for water and flour work beautifully. The dough comes together like a charm and after one single fold, it looks strong enough to shape.
I didn’t particularly care for the above Olive Bread. The recipe calls for 3 g of instant yeast for 400 g of flour and somehow the flavor and smell of yeast came out too strongly for my taste. I forgot to shoot the crumb and the bread disappeared so fast (I guess my kids liked it better than I did) that by the time I remembered to take a picture, it was too late. There was nothing special about it anyway.
Now the No-Knead Peanut Bread is good (it uses 1 g of yeast for 300 g of flour). Its greatest advantage (and I suspect that it is the case with most of the recipes in the book) is that it is truly no-hassle, provided one is willing to wait 24-hours between the mixing and the eating.
If one doesn’t have an overwhelming preference for levain breads or other breads made with a preferment (aroma-wise, I don’t think the 18-hour slow fermentation of the whole dough offers a valid substitute, at least in this case) or if there is no good bakery in the vicinity (as often happens in vacation areas), then it is a quite handy recipe to have in one’s repertoire. It tastes specially good when toasted. Lahey also offers a slightly different peanut butter and jelly version which must be specially popular with the younger set. I’ll have to try it on my grandchildren back home.
Ingredients (for 1 loaf):
280 g unbleached all-purpose flour (Lahey specifies “bread flour” but in my experience what bakers often mean by “bread flour” is actually regular all-purpose and, unless there are indications to the contrary, AP flour is always what I use)
20 g whole-wheat flour
4 g table salt
1g instant yeast
260 g water (@ 55 to 65 degrees F/13 to 18 degrees C)
50 g unsalted smooth peanut butter
35 g unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, whole
35 g unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Please note that his bread is made over a 2-day period.
- In a medium bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and yeast. In a blender, blend the water and peanut butter (some settling will occur if this is left to stand, so blend just before using).
- Add to the flour mixture and, using a wooden spoon or your hand (I actually used a dough hook, a tool which I find most useful for mixing no-knead doughs)…
…mix until you have a wet, sticky dough without any lumps, about 30 seconds
- Stir in the whole peanuts until evenly distributed
- 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 (in my case the dough fermented for 24 hours because of a scheduling conflict but it still looked perfectly fine when I took it out of the bowl), 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
- Using lightly floured (or wet) hands or a bowl scraper, lift the edges of the dough in towards the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges to make it round
- Place a tea towel on your work surface. Generously dust with wheat bran or flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seamside down. Sprinkle the surface of the dough with a light dusting of flour.
- Fold the ends of the teatowel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it 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
- Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F/246 C, with a rack in the lower third, and place a covered 4 1/2 to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot in the center of the rack
- Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Sprinkle half the chopped peanuts into the pot. Unfold the tea towel and quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution – the pot will be very hot). Sprinkle the remaining chopped peanuts on top of the dough. Cover the pot and bake for 45 minutes
- Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is medium chestnut color, about 10 minutes. 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.
Lahey offers several other appealing recipes, some of which – such as the stirato, a kind of Italian baguette – are not baked in a pot but rather on a baking stone. New Yorkers might want to try the Jones Beach Bread (made with seawater as in prehistoric times). The Carrot Bread -made with freshly squeezed carrot juice, currants and walnuts – looks really good. So does the Apple Bread which uses fresh apples, dried apple slices and freshly squeezed apple juice.
I wouldn’t mind trying the Fennel-Raisin Bread which requires caramelized fennel bulbs and Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur. I probably would like these breads better if they were leavened differently but in a pinch, I would certainly give any of these a shot, especially when they contain flavorful ingredients which might somehow distract from the less complex taste.
It can be (and has been) argued that such books as Lahey’s dumb down the bread-baking process so that anyone can believe himself or herself a baker and that there is more to making good bread than mixing flour, water, salt and a pinch of yeast and letting the resulting dough sit 18 hours at room temperature before sticking it in the oven.
Maybe so. I still like the idea that many more people might get hooked into baking by such a book or others like it. Not every home baker needs to be a “serious home baker”. More bakers mean more debate and more ideas. It may also mean more people caring about what goes into their bread and, consequently, a wider selection of flours and grains.
More bakers might mean that one day, my local East Coast Costco will finally carry organic all-purpose flour instead of the awful bleached flour it now stocks. And on that day, I will give thanks to whom thanks are due, namely the bakers -well-known or anonymous – who work tirelessly to promote the cause of bread. Like it or not, Jim Lahey is one of them…