Monday February 18th 2008, 4:36 pm


No-knead bread

When I first started to learn about yeast cookery it was drummed into me that baking bread was a very tricky skill to crack. Yeasted dough had to be treated with great respect, kept out of draughts, not be subjected to shocks (slamming oven doors etc) kept at just the right temperature and be given sugar to feed it.
Last year I came across a recipe for no-knead bread which seemed to defy all the rules, turns bread making technique completely on its head and still manages to produce a fantastic looking loaf.
The technique, devised by Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York was picked up by The New York Times and subsequently created a buzz that quickly swept across America. As far as I am aware, it didn’t reach these shores, or perhaps I just turned my back for five minutes and missed it.
A couple of days ago I came across the recipe again and baked the no-knead loaf for the first time and was just amazed with the result. The ‘no-knead’ part of the title didn’t attract me to the recipe at all, I think most bread bakers like the kneading bit, but this recipe calls for virtually no attention and a considerable amount of time. You mix the dough in 3 minutes flat, then leave it untouched, at room temperature, for 12 – 18 – 24 hours, as long as you like, shape (the very wet) dough into a ball, leave to rise again for 2-3 hours, then, and this seems to be the magic bit, bake the loaf in a lidded cast iron pot, removing the lid for the last 20-30 minutes of cooking time. I’ve got a really great cast iron casserole I bought at Ikea and that worked wonderfully well. Apparently any lidded dish should suffice; pyrex, a terracotta bread crock etc, just make sure that it is totally oven proof.
The texture of the bread is remarkable, the crust is crunchy and crisp and my loaf looked like something I would have paid dearly for if I had bought it at a smart bakery. This morning it made lovely toast. Now I am going to experiment with other flour combinations and flavourings, I’m used to eating sourdough bread with all the rich flavours that offers so just a bit more oomph would make this loaf just about perfect.
Here is the recipe. It is really worth trying it out.
The only part that could be daunting is handling very wet dough. My advice is that after the long rise, scrape the dough out of the bowl with an oiled spatula, onto an oiled surface and use oiled hands to manipulate the dough, though it doesn’t call for much, if any, handling. You can then fold the dough a few times if you like and flour it only when shaping into a ball. Apparently well floured baking parchment is another alternative way to stop it sticking all over the place and driving you to distraction. Don’t be tempted to simply add more flour to make it manageable, it’s the water content that makes it so light and open and I’ve read reports of great results achieved without touching the dough at all.


Monday January 14th 2008, 12:32 pm

Sourdough barm bread

Over the last few days I’ve been busy baking. I first began making sourdough bread last year starting my leaven starter from scratch. Baking for me has always been a comforting activity and I would consider myself experienced at bread baking, but sourdough baking is quite different and requires a different approach. Life was already pretty stressful and growing and feeding the starter almost tipped me over the edge. My sourdough adventure very nearly became a sourdough nightmare.
Years ago I remember a Paddington bear animation on TV where he is making porridge that keeps expanding, oozing its way over the top of the pan and down the side of the cooker until it all goes out of control and the porridge engulfs his house. This cartoon image was one that came to mind many times over those first few weeks. I was using expensive organic flour to feed the leaven and couldn’t bring myself to throw any of it away as day by day it expanded and seemed to take on a life of its own. Then I started to make it into bread and the dough was wet and unmanageable. In the middle of the night I’d be on the forum on Dan Lepard’s website trying to find the key that would make my baking comfort blanket wrap me up all warm and cosy again.
Well, I am nothing if not persistent and I was determined to crack it. Hydration, hydration, hydration I began to chant. I bought some digital scales and measured everything with precision and then it all started to fall into place. I am still not sure that my ‘kneading’ technique is quite like Dan Lepard’s but I can now turn wet sticky dough into a posh loaf, perhaps not yet the smartest-looking artisan bread but not far off.
This morning, for breakfast, I had a slice of the ‘best barm bread ever’ spread with organic butter and homemade damson jam. I closed my eyes and savoured the taste as I was eating it, appreciating every moment. If it wasn’t for the fact that my espresso machine broke last week life would have, for that moment, been pretty damn near perfect.