Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Monday, February 10, 2014

Homemade Bread To Die For: Part I

This will be the first post of a multi-part series on how to bake an incredibly simple and even more incredibly delicious loaf of home-made bread.

My mother baked bread for much of my childhood, with the result that at some point in my 20's, I began to think about learning how to bake bread myself.  The problem was that there were always reasons not to do it right away.  I promised myself that I'd make bread after I got tenure, or perhaps during my next sabbatical, or certainly after my daughter was born--but whenever the projected time, my baking bread never came to pass.

Flash forward:  I'm now in my 60's, and after something close to forty years of procrastinating, I've finally tried my hand at making bread.  I've read Elizabeth David's wonderful book, English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Biscuit Books, 1994), and I've nurtured my own sourdough starter from the directions in Patricia Wells's The Food Lover's Guide to Paris (4th ed., Workman Publishing, 1999).  Truth be told, though, I don't especially like the bread I've made.  It's sour, much too sour, unfortunately.  And it rises only reluctantly.  My first attempt, in fact, resulted in the world's largest sourdough cracker.  Subsequent loaves rose slightly higher, but only slightly.  They never resembled the pictures in the books I'd read.  I concluded that baking bread didn't seem to be in my future.

Flash forward again: I'm about to fly out to San Diego to spend some time with my mother, now in her late 80's and, after a broken hip, far less mobile than she had been (she had gone fly fishing for steelhead with me when she was 85).  My wife Caroline suggested that I ask my mother to teach me how to bake her bread.  My mother was delighted with the idea. We had a great time, and the taste of her loaves brought back my childhood.

As a mature (ahem!) adult myself, however, I had to face the fact that my mother's loaf was not what I wanted to eat every day.  With butter and jam, it made delicious toast, but her bread was too sweet and too yeasty for my taste (not that I ever mentioned this to her, of course).

In 2006, however, my friend Maria sent me the link to Mark Bittman's interview with Jim Lahey in the NY Times, and it's not an exaggeration to say that my life began to change.  Jim Lahey is the founder of the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC and the author, with Rick Flaste, of My Bread:  The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method (W. W. Norton, 2009).  Lahey's principal innovation was to come up with a method of creating an oven within an oven.  By preheating a Dutch oven, putting the risen dough into it, covering it, and popping it back into the oven, Lahey had discovered a way for the moisture in the bread dough to create steam within the Dutch oven, and steam is what creates oven spring, the final rise of the proofed bread.  Hitherto, home bakers had had to resort to pans of water steaming away in the oven or throwing ice cubes into the oven:  clumsy, messy, and not especially effective. 

Lahey's second innovation was discovering that if you let the dough rise for six to eight hours or overnight, no kneading was required.  The extended period for rising was not new, but the absence of kneading was.  With these two innovations, Jim Lahey had single-handedly changed the baking of bread.  And since Lahey used commercial yeast, the loaves were not sour.  No longer arcane, no longer complex, Lahey's method allows anyone who follows his directions to produce a really good loaf of bread.  We are all in his debt.

If you're interested, Mark Bittman's column will give you a recipe for white bread and tell you how to follow Lahey's method.  Lahey's My Bread of course goes into far more detail on various kinds of breads, pizzas, and focaccias.  As the old commercial used to say, "Try it.  You'll like it!"

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