I’ve been on a bread-baking bender for the past month. I realized that my bread compulsion might have crossed the line from “enthusiasm” to “problem” when I found myself standing in the kitchen at two in the morning, waiting for a batch of bagels to complete its final rise. My brother, visiting for the night, was curled up on the futon, sick, miserable and complaining about having to wait up so he could help me time the bagel boiling (a delicate operation best performed with an assistant).
I’m glad we persevered. What are siblings for, after all, if not to drag you out of bed to perform inane tasks in the pursuit of their latest obsession? I’ve now got a freezer full of bagels and a brother owed a large Christmas gift. And despite my bagel-related lack of sleep — or perhaps as a result of the delirium it produced — I was back in the kitchen the following night, preparing rye bread instead of an annotated bibliography for my senior essay.
But bread baking doesn’t have to be obsessive, nor does it need to be time-consuming. In fact, I found a recipe that is perfectly compatible with the busy Yale lifestyle. All you do is mix flour, yeast, water and salt in a bowl, let it sit for 12 to 18 hours, turn it out on a countertop, let it rise for two hours, then pop it in the oven. About an hour later, you have a beautiful loaf of bread with a firm crust and perfectly chewy crumb. The yeast imparts a fantastic flavor to the dough during the long initial fermentation, and baking the loaf in a covered pot produces the same great crust as the steam-injection ovens used by professional bakers.
This recipe also lends itself well to adaptation. Once you get the hang of the process, you can start playing. You can substitute wheat flour for some of the white. You can add herbs or dried fruit. You can halve the recipe and make a small loaf.
Just don’t blame me if you lose any sleep over it.
jim lahey’s no-knead bread
Adapted from Mark Bittman at the New York Times
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp. salt
Taking Bittman’s lead, I combined the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl, added 1 5/8 cups of water, and stirred until a wet dough formed. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left it on my desk (Bittman calls for a warm room-temperature rise) for about 18 hours.
When I returned, the dough’s surface was dotted with bubbles. I dropped it onto a lightly floured cutting board. Folding the dough over onto itself a few times, as Bittman instructed, was difficult; the dough was so sticky it remained a shapeless blob. I covered the blob loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest 15 minutes.
While the dough rested, I generously coated part of a cotton T-shirt (a cotton towel works, too) with flour. I left my hands floury, and quickly shaped the dough into a ball, which I placed seam-side down on the flour-coated shirt. I sprinkled the top of the dough with flour and folded the rest of the shirt over it.
An hour and a half later, I placed a 6-quart covered pot in the oven and set the temperature to 450 degrees. I let the oven preheat for a half hour before checking the dough to see if it was about double in size and did not spring back when poked. It was ready, so I carefully turned the dough blob over into the pot, seam-side up. The dough stuck to the shirt a little and looked like a mess in the pot. A few shakes of the pan straightened it out (although it still wasn’t beautiful, which Bittman assured was normal). I covered the pot with the lid and placed it back in the oven. A half hour later, I removed the lid and continued to bake the bread for about 20 minutes, until it was golden to medium brown. I placed the bread on a wire rack to cool completely. Then I dug in.
Makes one 1 1/2 pound loaf.