I am not a baker. Never have been. I have always found stove-top cooking fun and easy but baking is a very different art. Cooking lets you stir and taste and adjust as you go along to get things to come out just right. But with baking—once you close that oven door, your success is in the hands of fate.
But I’ve recently changed my mind, at least when it comes to homemade bread. I was forced into it, in a way, by the indifferent quality of the bread that I can find where I am now living. Even at the ‘fancy’ supermarkets around, and even at the few remaining bakeries in my area, the bread is almost always disappointing—the crust isn’t crusty enough, the crumb too soft and bland and too ‘tight’ as well. What I have been looking for is that bread that I remember appearing on Angelina’s table, large round loaves that she would hold close to her chest and cut with a large knife. That bread was crusty and chewy and delicious, with big holes that were perfect for catching sauce when wiping up sauce on your plate (‘facendo la scarpetta‘ as the they say in Italian). I rediscovered that kind of bread when I moved to Italy, where it is variously called pane casereccio or pane di casa or (especially in and around Naples) pane cafone. It was cheap and good and ubiquitous, one of the small but wonderful pleasures of Italian life.
When I moved back to the States, I was desperate to find something comparable. After looking around for at least a year, I realized that I might as well be looking for unicorns. The obvious solution was to do what more and more people are doing: make my own. Not being a natural baker, I was amazed that I could do it in the first place. In fact, turns out it is not all that hard to do, especially with the help of a standing mixer.
Over the past year or so, I’ve collected a number of books on bread baking. All of them teach you to make great homemade bread, but just this past Christmas I found gold. Some friends gave me My Bread, by Jim Lahey, founder of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. Lahey has developed an excellent, incredibly straight-forward no-knead bread recipe that that turns out a loaf as close to the pane casereccio as anything I’ve tasted since I left Italy. It really could hardly be easier to pull off—all you need are the ingredients—flour, water, salt and yeast—a good cast-iron casserole and a bit of patience. Oh yes, and an oven. The ‘secret’ of this method lies in giving the dough a very slow initial rise, which eliminates the need for kneading, and the use of the cast-iron casserole or ‘Dutch oven‘, which you preheat in a hot oven to recreate conditions inside that Lahey says are similar to a bakery oven. I’m not expert, but I can say that the crust that forms in that environment is just wonderful.
For a medium loaf
- 3 cups bread flour (or all purpose flour)
- 1-1/2 cups cold water
- 1/4 teaspoon yeast
- A pinch of salt
Mix the dry ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer, using the paddle. Then add the water in a drizzle until a very stick dough has formed. If the dough seems dry, then add a bit more, a spoonful at a time. Take the bowl from the mixer and cover it with a towel and/or a plate and leave it in a warm (but not hot) place over night. Lahey recommends 18 hours (or at few as 12) but I’ve found that 24 hours produces an even better loaf. There’s no problem as long as you think just a little ahead and make mix the dough the day before and let it rise overnight.[NB: No worries if you don’t have a standing mixer, you can just mix your dough in a normal bowl with a wooden spoon.]
After this initial rise, the dough will have expanded, darkened in color and be spottled with ‘pock marks’ on its surface.
Now scrape the dough out of the bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon onto a lightly floured surface. You will notice that it will have a rather stringy consistency, which is just what you want: this shows how the slow rise has allowed gluten to form even without kneading.
Flour your hands and form the mass of dough into a ball without kneading. Just sort of glance your hands over the surface of the dough, tucking it under itself to round it and smooth its surface. (NB: Use a minimum of flour both on the surface and on your hands, so you don’t incorporate too much into the dough. A wet dough is important to the rustic texture of the bread.)
Then gingerly lay the dough on a lightly floured tea towel, then fold the ends of the towel on top of the dough. Let the bread rise again (this step is called ‘proofing’ by bakers) until it roughly doubles in size, which can take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. If you have the time, take the whole 2 hours.
About 30 minutes before the second rise is over, preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Put a 4-1/2 or 5-1/2 quart cast iron casserole (about 10″ in diameter) with its cover, in the oven to preheat along with the oven itself. This will act as an oven inside the oven: intensely hot and small enough that it retain the moist atmosphere that really excellent bread needs.
Now you’re ready to bake. This is the one tricky part of the recipe, and just a little dangerous as you’ll need to handle the very hot cast iron casserole. Make sure you have heavy oven mitts (it’ll be too hot for a towel) and proceed with care!
Take the casserole out of the oven using your oven mitt and lay it on a heat-resistant surface. (I use a a turkey carving board with spikes that hold the pot slightly above the surface.) Then remove the cover and lay it aside. Take the towel with the dough and quickly flip the dough into the casserole (it will go in ‘upside down’, which is fine). Shake the casserole, if need be, to center the dough and then quick re-cover it.
Put the casserole back in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Then take it out of the oven and remove the cover. The bread will be ever so slightly browned.
Now put the casserole back into the oven, uncovered, and bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the bread has developed a beautiful golden brown crust. Turn the bread out onto a cooling rack and leave it until it has completely cooled. (This cooling period is critical, as the crumb (ie, the ‘insides’ of the bread) will continue to cook; you may hear it ‘crackle’ as it does, which means it’s doing its job.
When the bread has cooled completely, after about 45 minutes to an hour, it is ready to enjoy!
The best flour for making homemade bread is, of course, bread flour. Bread flour has a high gluten (protein) content that produces a nice, firm crumb and crusty crust. These days, with so many people making their own bread, it is fairly easy to find in better supermarkets. It can also be ordered online. But if you like, you can also use all purpose flour; it works almost as well.
As for the casserole, the usual brands, such as Le Creuset, Staub and Lodge, all make the kind of casserole you’ll need. Lahey says he likes Staub the best, and that’s the brand I use as well, but it’s an expensive solution (around $250). Le Creuset has one drawback, which is that the plastic knob on the cover is only guaranteed up to 375F, just under the temperature you need. And since constant baking an empty casserole at high temperatures will, over time, discolor whatever casserole you use, you may just want to opt for the economical choice: the Lodge, which costs only $30.
This recipe for homemade bread is an only slightly revised version of the basic no-knead bread recipe found in My Bread. I’ve upped the water content slightly (as I like a ‘holey’ crumb) and lengthened the initial rise even more, but otherwise this is his recipe. I heartily recommend you buy the book, which is filled with little tips and tricks on not mentioned here.
Post scriptum: You can make a wonderful whole-wheat loaf using the exact same recipe, except using 1 cup whole wheat and 2 cups white bread flour.
Whether whole wheat or not, with more bread-making experience, I find I like to add more water than Jim’s recipe calls for, up to 2 cups. The resulting dough is very wet: too wet to handle with bare hands, but if you flour the surface and your hands well enough, it will work out fine. There’s a saying, the wetter the dough, the better the bread, and I totally agree! The crumb you get from a very wet dough is fantastically chewy and full of flavor.