The staff of life

November 20, 2009 at 12:42 AM | Posted in Recipe | 2 Comments

The other day, I got a one-line email from Danielle:

“Any chance you could make your immovable feast move again?”

And then I realized that it really has been quite awhile. I originally drafted this very post in September, but never got around to posting it because <insert excuses here>. However, I’m currently baking two loaves of bread for a dinner tomorrow, and there seems like no better time than when my apartment smells like a bakery to motivate me to share the wonderfulness of this bread with the rest of the world.

So here’s the impassioned introduction I wrote in September, about a month after I got back from Paris:

“I would rather not eat bread at all than eat a cottony baguette or a piece of sandwich bread that you can crumple up into a ball the size of a mirabelle plum (about the diameter of a half-dollar).  Even at reputed Boston-area bakeries like When Pigs Fly or Clear Flour or Whole Foods or Hi-Rise, I can’t get that excited.  I find the bread at Clear Flour to be too crusty without a sturdy mie (the soft middle of the bread), and When Pigs Fly is either too dense or tastes flat.   I have yet to find a baguette anywhere that is both crusty outside and soft inside, and it’s hard to justify spending $4 on a baguette that was never that good to begin with and will go stale in less than a day. So the only alternative is to make my own.”

It’s definitely possible that I caught a little bit of that French scoffing at anything that is a poor imitation of something the French have perfected.

Although the no-knead bread craze seemed to have come and gone a few years ago with Mark Bittman’s New York Times article, I didn’t have a cast-iron pot, a necessary ingredient to making the perfect no-knead bread at home, until my grandparents gave me theirs when they moved last fall, and so I never got in on the trend despite multiple tastings of Kira and Colin’s stunning results.  After I procured the pot, I made the original Bittman bread last spring, and while it was absolutely beautiful–golden crust, big holes–it tasted like nothing and the mie was kind of wet.

Enter Cook’s Illustrated.  With some kitchen chemistry and a lot of test batches, they augmented the traditional ingredients in a European boule–water, flour, yeast, and salt–with beer and white vinegar.  And a book I got from the library, Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-free, No-knead Breads, recommended the additional step of letting the mixed dough rest in the refrigerator overnight prior to letting it loose on its long, slow rise.  The increased depth of flavor is remarkable (I did a side-by-side taste test.  Yes, yes I did), though my Kneadlessly Simple loaf was a rather wan color and tasted slightly off.  So I’m sticking with the basic Cook’s formula.  But with all this expertise taken together, I can say that mine is a truly exceptional loaf of bread, one that I would gladly pay for.  Except that by my calculations it costs, oh, about $0.30 per loaf to make. Also, since I’m quite short on time these days between work, school, and life, this bread fits excellently into my routine.  In fact, the “active time” is–not lying–about six minutes.  Maybe.

This bread takes quite well to adaptations.  I once made it with crumbled bacon and caramelized onions, and more recently with chopped kalamata olives and fresh rosemary.  Just throw in any add-ins when mixing all the ingredients together.  I’ve also been experimenting with different beers, to great success.  The original recipe calls for a light-flavored lager, but since I can’t make myself buy Bud Light or Miller High Life (bad freshman year memories), I’ve very successfully used hefeweizens and other wheat beers (accentuates the wheatiness of the flour), ambers and other darker lagers (makes for a deeper taste), and even some beers that are edging towards IPAs.

Also, this makes a pretty amazing house-gift, potluck contribution, or way to welcome someone to your home.  Not to brag, but the combination of visual appeal, taste, and that magical allure of homemade bread just can’t be beat. (see evidence on Julia’s flickr stream)


Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

  • 3 cups unbleached white flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast (also labeled “bread-machine” or “rapid-rise”)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons room-temperature water
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lager or other light-flavored beer
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

Thoroughly blend flour, yeast, and salt.  Add water, beer, and vinegar, and stir vigorously until a shaggy ball forms (I use my dough whisk but a wooden spoon would probably be fine). Let rest in the fridge for 3 hours to overnight, to develop the flavor (optional).  Then let rise at room temperature for 12-18 hours, until the dough is big, bubbly, and sticky (and warm when you put your hand over it…love that fermentation!).



...and post-rise

Lightly flour a cutting board or counter, and scrape the dough onto the flour, dusting the top with more flour to prevent your hands from sticking.  Knead 10-15 times until soft and smooth, dusting with more flour as necessary (the dough is looser than a traditional bread dough).  Coat a 10-inch nonstick frying pan with cooking spray, and deposit the dough into the pan.  Let rise for 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Pre-second rise...

...and post-second rise

Thirty minutes before baking, place an 8-10-inch covered Dutch oven or other cast-iron casserole with a tight-fitting lid in the oven (I’ve also heard that a cast-iron skillet covered tightly with foil will work).  Preheat to 500 degrees.

When the oven is preheated, carefully remove the pot from the oven.  Dump the bread dough in–it will make a satisfying sizzling noise.  With a pair of scissors, cut a big X on top of the dough.  Then lower the oven temperature to 425, replace the lid on the pot, and bake, undisturbed, for 30 minutes.  Remove the lid, rotate the pan 180 degrees, and bake another 20-30 minutes, until the loaf is a beautifully dark golden brown.

Just after removing the lid, about halfway through baking

Remove bread from pot and place on a cooling rack.  Cool completely before slicing.  And you might get funny looks for doing this, but if you put your ear near the bread as it cools, you can hear it crackling and whistling.  Pretty cool.

Boulangerie Julien in Paris has nothing on this beauty

This freezes very well, though the crust isn’t quite as shatteringly crisp post-defrosting. I cut each loaf into quarters, wrap the quarters individually in foil, and take one out in the morning so that by the time I get home at night, I have perfectly defrosted, homemade bread waiting for me.  With a smear of salted butter, it’s pretty close to heaven on earth.



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  1. My favorite line about this bread:

    Erika: “It literally takes minutes to make!”
    Someone else: “We should make it tonight then!”
    Erika: “It takes 24 hours.”

    I am genuinely curious about this now – especially adding things like olives or beer! I think Jean and I will be testing this out soon (and probably calling you halfway through the process to badger you with questions).

    Love you! Beth

  2. I am really craving a warm slice of your bread, with some softened butter and a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

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