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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bread Kick

I'm on one. Last week after making a few pretty good standard French loaves I read Mark Bittman's Times article and recipe (these will be paid-only archive pieces soon, so if you're interested you should read them now) about the Sullivan Street Bakery guy's "new" way of making bread—no kneading and a very wet dough with very little yeast and a long rise, baked in a heavy pot with a lid—and all the various Chowhound threads about it. I wrote to my mom, and she immediately started a Bittman loaf while I went on a hunt for a six- to seven-quart cast-iron Dutch oven. Before I'd found one I liked, she reported:
It's very good. Very tough crisp crust. The interior is holey, soft, and moist. The flavor is OK. mild. I think I prefer more bready flavor, more yeasty, more sour. This is like white bread. Which it is. Lately I've been making a bread with overnight starter and part whole wheat flour, and it has more flavor. The crust of this today is kind of almost shiny smooth, it is not dry & crumbly. Yet. It is more crisp than chewy. It looks as if it were glazed--nice golden brown, but of course lumpy & rough with bran.

The hard part was the pot. Even the biggest Corning ware pot was not big enough. I have a lid for a smaller dutch oven. To find a 6 to 8 quart size meant using one that does not have a lid. So I put heavy duty foil on it & held that down with a lid that almost fit. I figured that even though it's only one little loaf, the size of the pot must have something to do with the air in there. If it were smaller, the bread might burn?

But using that big pot for one loaf seemed like overkill, and I usually do at least 2 loaves at a time. Often 4. One little loaf is not worth that much effort, especially when I can get good bread with normal methods--kneading isn't that hard! And the water squirt in the oven works. The most important thing I think is the long cool rise. And I can make more bread without taking up the whole oven for one hour at 450 degrees for one loaf.

But I sure can't complain about it--it's very good--a bit dark on the bottom, hard to cut, but nice & chewy. It is a big blob--no shape to it. I used lots of bran & should have used more--it stuck to the cloth. You need a good new linen towel that is stiff--I used an old piece of limp linen, & with dips in the wrinkles, the bran did not get completely over it. But it did not stick to the pot at all.
She'd written to me a month or so ago about her own new way of making bread, letting a biga (starter) rise very slowly in the fridge for a long time (she uses stuff like wine dregs for the yeast). So Friday afternoon I decided to wing it and try a combination of all of these techniques. Unfortunately I didn't keep track of amounts, or take in-progress pictures, but I'll do that next time. Here's what I did, though, in broad strokes:
Friday afternoon: Combined lots of cold water in a big ceramic bowl with just 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast, about 1 cup whole-wheat flour, and about 2 cups bread flour and stirred until smooth. It was like a very runny batter. Put it in the fridge overnight.

Saturday morning: Added more cold water and another 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast, then stirred in 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and just enough bread flour to make a wet, very sticky, shaggy dough—too wet to turn out onto the counter; I left it in the bowl, covered, for about 4 hours at cool room temperature.

Saturday afternoon: Turned the dough out onto the counter, sprinkled with a little flour, and used a bench knife to fold it over on itself a few times. Washed the bowl and very lightly greased it with olive oil. Put the dough blob back into the bowl and let it rise for about 6 hours, covered, at cool room temperature. It's still very wet. Every once in a while I'd use a rubber spatula to fold the edges of the dough over and into the middle, pulling the dough from the bottom up and over itself and gently pressing down on the mound. It wasn't rising very much, but it was getting stretchy. Still wet.

Saturday night (about 8 p.m.): Used a spatula to turn the dough out onto the counter, then cut it into two portions. Again using the bench knife I formed the pieces into roughly round balls (it was still so wet that it was hard to form the dough at all), then transfered them to a cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet. Brushed the tops with water and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The balls were more like flat disks, heavy with the weight of the wetness. I let the loaves sit just until the oven was preheated to 450 degrees, then put them in, threw a couple ice cubes in the bottom of the oven, and baked for about 30 minutes.
Here's what I got:

The crazy loaf in the back is the one I had some problems with as I was transfering it from counter to baking sheet with the bench knife: the bottom ended up on the top.

Glossy, crackly crust; high, holey crumb; chewy; pretty good flavor with the right amount of salt. Here's how it looked this morning:

Changes for next time: I'll make the dough ever so slightly less wet. I'll remember to save some of the dough to use as a sour starter for the time after that, because it would be much better if it had a little more tang. Also I'd like to try it with rye, as it's been years and years since I've made good rye bread (I did it once, in Queens, and never managed to replicate it).

I've been dipping in and out of Nina Planck's Real Food since I bought it yesterday. (I went to high school with her in Loudoun County, Virginia, but she was a couple years ahead of me and I didn't really know her.) So far it's pretty smart, although Mr. Chalmers is not a fan of the climate-based explanation for the lack of milk consumption in East and Southeast Asia—and he's right that it's more likely just cultural (see Italy, Greece, China: hot places with cheese traditions and a cold place with no milk-drinking or cheesemaking at all). Despite the book's use of discredited essentialist anthropological theories it's making me want to make real yogurt. So look for that story here soon.

Yesterday the Chalmerses went into Athens. We went to the bookstore, made a quick stop at the Kroger, then went downtown and had coffee and read for an hour or so. It was overcast and windy, but warmer than it has been. Town was quiet, perhaps because of the holiday or the away game at Auburn. The bug was happy to sit outside with us, and she let us finish our coffee at our own pace and read peacefully until we were ready to leave. Her eyes were especially blue yesterday, it seems.


Deborah said...

Boy am I glad you and your mom tried this out before I did. I read the article and saw the wet dough part and thought, hmmmmmm??

Thanks again!

Heidi said...

Oh fresh bread...yum.

It's great when the babies are content to sit and observe, and you get a little slice of your old life for a while, isn't it?

Mary Jessica said...

Reading this made me hungry. I love it when you write about food...or, um, write at all. You write good. Dur. xoxo