Tastings

Easiest Homemade Bread (Frenchman approved)

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When my husband and I first began dating, it did not take him long to request freshly-baked bread. Being French and having grown up there, he had grown accustomed to having a nice hunk next to his plate. In his non-baker mind, there was not that much difference between bread and the peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies with which I had won his heart (an exaggeration, but by how much, really, knowing what we know about hearts and stomachs?) I explained to him that there was an ocean of difference between most baked goods and YEASTED baked goods, the largest being, so I thought, that they must be kneaded for a long time, a task unwieldy without the most coveted of tools, a stand mixer. After a previous attempt at making my Mom’s pizza dough had required so much mixing and kneading by hand and turned out like cardboard anyway, I put all yeast doughs aside.  

The truth is I had been wishing for a shiny and beautiful KitchenAid Stand Mixer since I had been living on my own, roughly eight years. I wanted to make creamy creamy cheesecake and bread dough and pizza, cinnamon rolls, yeasted breakfast cakes, whole grain sandwich loaves, beautiful, crusty white boules, all kinds of deliciousness. But the dog-eared pages in magazines and cookbooks would have to wait until I was able to knead that dough correctly. I should have known that the promise of freshly baked bread would be too much for my husband (then boyfriend) and sure enough, several Christmases ago a shiny red KitchenAid was presented along with an unspoken request for “I can haz bread now?” And now I could indeed make bread! And cheesecake and cinnamon rolls. And lo, it was good. But not quite perfect, because after making dozens of different bread recipes, they all kind of fell flat, none was a keeper. And now, dear reader, the joke is on me, because we have found a winner, a bread that I now make weekly that is delicious and versatile and craggy and crispy, and gets compliments every time! And it does not require a single knead! It is the easiest thing in the world and has 4 ingredients which you almost probably currently have. The only drawback is that you need a bit of foresight, you have to begin the recipe the day before you want to enjoy it. You may have heard of the recipe, by Jim Lahey from the Sullivan Street Bakery and originally published in the New York Times, and then picked up by all blogs everywhere and Pinterest. In the original recipe, the bread is baked in a pre-heated metal casserole with a lid, like a Le Creuset. Not having one of those (it’s next on my coveted list) I use a pre-heated, lidless cast-iron pan, which works perfectly. I have also baked it on a cold sheet pan, and it was still delicious, if not quite as crusty. If you do have a lidded casserole and want to use it, follow the recipe as is, following the direction of when to remove the lid. 

  • 3 cups all purpose flour (can replace with up to 1 cup whole wheat flour)
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast or 1/3 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 5/8 cups of water (this is an annoying amount, and I usually fill my pyrex measuring cup to a bit less than 1 2/3 and all is fine)

Rough, craggy dough just after mixing

1. In a large bowl, mix the first three ingredients and then add the water. Mix again, incorporating the ingredients. It will be sticky and not quite fully mixed together, as in the photo above. Don’t worry. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature* for 12-18 hours. I go for the longer side, mixing it up sometime after dinner and continuing the next steps around 1 or 2 the next day. 

Risen, fermenty dough after 18 hours

2. The dough will be now be super wet and bubbly. Flour a silpat or piece of parchment and turn the dough out onto it, using fingers to release the yeasty tentacles. Sprinkle a little more flour, just enough so that it doesn’t stick to everything, and fold it on itself a few times. Cover with plastic wrap (maybe the same that you covered the bowl with) and let it rest for 15 minutes. You can also do this on a floured work surface, but I find putting it on something helps to move it later on.

3. Gently cajole the dough into a roundish shape, placing any seams you might end up with down on the silpat or surface. Dust with flour, cornmeal or wheat bran (I always use flour). Cover with a flour-dusted cotton kitchen towel. Let rise for another 2 hours, or until it has roughly doubled in size and the dough doesn’t spring back when poked.

Turned out and formed

4. Preheat the oven and your 6-8 quart cast-iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic cooking vessel to 450 degrees. Carefully remove the pot or pan. Lift the silpat, parchment or towel and use it to flip the round dough ball into the pot. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like at this point. If you just have a baking sheet, just flip the dough onto that, a little cornmeal would help it not to stick. Cover with a lid if you have one and replace the pot in the oven.

5. Since I don’t have a cover, I create steam in the oven by using a spray bottle filled with water and spraying the bottom of the oven at the beginning and about halfway through cooking. This helps form a nice crust.

6. Bake 30 minutes. Remove the lid, if using, and bake up to 15 more minutes. If not using a lid, I find 5 or 10 extra minutes is perfect for getting a golden brown crust. Bread should also make hollow sound when you knock on it. Cool on a rack before enjoying.

*Lahey recommends 70 degrees, but it is winter and my apartment is significantly not that right now, particularly at night, and the bread is still good! It’s pretty fool-proof.

 

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