I’ve fallen pretty hard for Jim Lahey. I can’t stop telling people about him: family, coworkers, complete strangers. He’s the guy that developed the one-pot, no kneading bread method that yields rustic rounds reminiscent of the bread Jim discovered in small towns outside of Rome. His theory is that you work the dough less but let it rise longer and it develops a structure that’s just as strong as more arduous recipes. It’s as easy as mixing a few ingredients in a bowl, letting them rise for 14-18 hours, and baking the round in a Dutch oven. That’s it. Now bread is one of those things that, for the most part, I’ve stayed away from because I’ve heard how difficult and moody it is. Of course I did make those english muffins and the recent blackberry cornmeal muffins, but let’s just say I’ve steered clear from yeast. Until now. I think I may be an official bread-baking convert. Trust me on this–you will be, too.
First, a quick word on trust. I learned a little something about it this week. I was at my favorite yoga class and the teacher decided it’d be a great idea to end class with a full bridge pose from a standing position. For all of you non-yogis, a full bridge (or wheel) is when you’re lying on your back, bend your knees and have your feet flush to the ground, and push up into a half-moon shape. Now if you do the pose from a standing position, you essentially look back, lean back, arch back…all the way down until your hands hit the floor. Oh boy. My mind started racing for reasons I may need to leave class early. What sudden emergency could I feign? People started to partner up so they’d have a spotter. Then all of my fellow classmates starting going about the pose like it was as easy as tying their shoes. I started to panic a little and made up some excuses to my partner–then from across the room I hear my teacher saying “Stop thinking, Megan. Just go, go, go. Your body’s strong enough. Your mind’s holding you back.” I took a deep breath and I went, went, went. I stopped trying to picture myself going down towards the ground and stopped trying to envision my form or think about how much it’d hurt if I fell on my head. Truthfully, I did it at that point more because everyone in class was watching me than for any other reason–but sure enough, my hands hit the solid ground and I was in the pose. Kind of floating there, actually.
And so it is with this bread–don’t stress about it. Don’t think about it at all, actually. Just follow these steps and, like the beauty of a good recipe or the instructions of a powerful teacher, the result will come. Whether you’re dealing with a full standing bridge in yoga or a round of the most beautiful, rustic round of bread you’ve ever seen, sometimes it helps to just turn off your mind and go. Move forward. See what happens and trust that it will.
You can do this. Here’s how it’ll go: First you mix some water, yeast, flour, and salt together real quick-like, cover it and let it rise. This is the first rise. Then you’ll wrap it in a towel for a second rise:
A half hour later you take off the top, let it brown for 15-30 more minutes…and voila:
While you may want to cut right into the hot round of bread, Jim talks about the singing that occurs right when you take your loaf out of the oven. It’s a slight whistling noise that happens due to the difference in temperature, and it’s actually a critical part of the final stages of the bread cooking. So don’t cut it. Leave it to cool, but have some soft butter on hand so that when you do slice it, you’ll be ready for action. Maybe you’ll be smiling like a fool and call your mom to tell her how awesome the bread looks, tastes, feels–how much you love Jim Lahey. Maybe you’re an old-hat at this baking thing and this is no big deal for you. If that’s the case, I challenge you to a standing bridge pose.
Please note that the rising times for this bread aren’t indicated in the time breakdowns above – the first rise is almost a full half day, so plan ahead.
I played around with the flour ratios here, adding a bit more whole wheat flour than the recipe calls for and decreasing the amount of bread flour. I wanted to get as close to a true whole-wheat bread as possible. Jim encourages experimentation, so I took him up on his offer (although he does warn against using 100% whole wheat flour as it results in a gritty, tough bread). As far as specific notes, if you’re using a Le Creuset pan, the little black knob is not oven-safe up to 475F, so you must unscrew the black knob, place the screw back in (to cover up the hole) and proceed with the baking. This is simply to save the top of your Le Creuset. A cast-iron pan like Lodge wouldn’t have this issue.
Adapted from: Jim Lahey’s My Bread
Equipment: 4 1/2 - 5 1/2 quart- heavy pot
For the Bread:
In a medium bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and yeast. Add the water and, using your hands or a wooden spoon, mix until you have a sticky, wet dough–about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is doted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 14-18 hours.
When the first rise is finished, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a rubber spatula or bowl scraper to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Using lightly floured hands or a spatula, lift the edges of the dough in twoards the center. Tuck in the edges to make it round.
Place a tea towel on your work surface and generously dust with flour. Place dough on towel, seam down and dust top lightly with flour. Fold ends of towel loosely over dough and place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 2-3 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your ginger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 20 minutes.
Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 F with a rack positioned in the lower third, and place a covered 4 1/2 – 5 1/2 quart heavy pot in center of rack. Using pot holders, remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. Be careful–the pot is hot! Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15-30 minutes further. Use a heat-proof spatula to carefully life out of pot and place on rack to cool completely.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.