Recently, I got into a discussion with a friend about baking bread. He's been doing it regularly for a couple of years, and judging from the finished products that I've tasted, he's learned quite a bit in that time.
In the past, when I've tried to make bread, it's always failed to rise, or it's come out tasteless or too sweet or salty, or the wheatberries I've added come out toothbreakingly hard. My schedule forces me to edit the rising times or I make substitutions or just plain forget that I am waiting for my bread to rise. The variables are endless.
This bread-baking friend, Jeff, has promised me lessons at some point in the future. In the meantime, he gave me a few words of advice.
"When you're kneading your dough, it should feel like skin," he said, kneading the air in front of him to demonstrate. The people sitting at the other end of the bar stared at him, confused.
I was doubtful. I'd tried to make bread several times — including a brief stint with a sourdough starter — and the dough had never, ever felt like skin. It was always more like wet cement.
So the following weekend I pulled out the flour and yeast, mixed everything together and kneaded for ten minutes. Then I extracted my hands from the sticky mess and added more flour before wandering away in frustration.
After 20 or so minutes I got back to discover that the flour had absorbed some of the moisture, and after a couple more kneads the dough was smooth. When I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that I was touching skin. I opened my eyes again pretty quickly.
The final product had risen for too long, so it tasted yeasty and didn't get as high as I would have liked in the pan. Toasted with butter, though, the rich whole wheat taste mostly outweighed my complaints.
When I bake bread, I inevitably enjoy the result. Often I enjoy it a little too much — sometimes as much as half the loaf ends up in my stomach instead of sliced and put away. But every time I bake bread, no matter how much I learn or how successful the loaf is, I realize just how much I have to learn.
Which is why, over the next couple of weeks, I'll be talking to breadmakers in the area and learning as much as I can about how they do it and what they love about it. By the end of that, I'll hopefully know more about baking bread, or at least know more about some fine Addison County bakers.
And for now, here's an adaptation of Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread recipe, which is in turn adapted from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. You barely have to give it any thought as it's sitting and rising (though some would argue that all the joy of bread baking is in the kneading process), and I've never seen it come out badly. Plus there are a million variations that can get you anything from a sourdough tang to a hearty whole wheat loaf.
Adapted from the New York Times
3 cups bread or all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon yeast (instant is recommended, but I usually use active dry)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
Board or countertop
Heavy, 6- to 8-quart pot, preferably cast iron, Pyrex or enamel, with cover
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl, then add 1 5/8 cups water. After mixing the dough into a rough, sticky ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for between 12 and 18 hours. Try not to sample the dough yet.
After you've let it rest, it should have settled and risen a little, and it should be bubbly. Flour a counter or cutting board and fold dough a couple of times, then let rest.
Put the dough on a surface coated with flour, or, if you have it, cornmeal or wheat bran, with the seam where you folded it facing down. After about two hours, it should have risen significantly, more than double its original bulk. If you're not sure, try poking it. The dent in the dough should not fill in.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, putting the pot inside to heat it up as well. Take out pot and turn dough into the pot, cover and bake for half an hour, then remove lid and bake for 15 minutes to 1/2 hour. The loaf should be browned and sound hollow when you tap it. Cool (or eat right away, if you lack the willpower).