March 30, 2014 – Once is luck, twice is interesting, but three times…when you manage to do something perfectly three times in a row… now you have a pattern 🙂
A few weeks ago I bought a bread cloche. I’d been eyeballing it for a few months at a store downtown, and I pretty much covet anything red and made by Emile Henry. And I love bread, though I’ve only ever been what I think of as moderately successful at baking it.
But it sat there on the shelf for a week until I was sifting through some magazines and tidying up. In an issue of Edible Vancouver, a free magazine I regularly pick up at various places around Vancouver, there was a bread recipe that looked…different.
The whole point of bread (other than eating it) always seemed to be the loving energy one put into kneading it and getting it to that wonderful elasticity, and then watching as the yeast did its thing.
When I was a kid I was one of those “Please son’t try to feed me anything out of the ordinary” type kids. Fussy, fussy, fussy. I’d eat peas and carrots only if they were raw, I’d eat tomatoes any way you presented them to me, and potatoes and corn where pretty much the only other veggies I’d allow entry past my lips. I liked chicken, hated beef, would tolerate pork, and would devour every morsel of fish that you handed to me. The only soups I would consider eating were chicken noodle and tomato. I didn’t like white bread, just plain old whole wheat or rye please.
Visits to the grandparents were frustrating all around. Granny and Grandad liked cracked wheat bread. I had to pick every little lump out of each slice before I’d ingest it.
What a joy I was to feed.
I’m much better now!
But my taste for bread didn’t mature until I visited Europe, France to be exact. I was in high school and I discovered what a real croissant was. I tasted a real baguette, with a crust that shattered when you tried to eat it. In other words, I discovered messy bread with flavour.
And I became a bread snob.
When I moved out I started to try and bake bread. And there began a 25 year search for the perfect loaf.
Oh I baked plenty of good bread. I baked sourdough, whole wheat, Italian, French, and many others. My Dad gave us a bread machine, and we used that a bit, but eventually I went back to hand making it. There is something therapeutic about making bread by hand. It’s meditative. And it’s fun.
When it works.
Which it doesn’t always.
I’ve thrown more loaves of bread out to the squirrels and the birds than I care to admit. I feel badly for Kirk. It must be torture to see it rising, see it enter the oven, smell it baking, and then see your wife look at it in disgust, tear it in half, and fling it out the door.
Some time later we tried another bread machine, a convection one. It makes some decent sandwich loaves, and I have a buttermilk whole wheat recipe that generally turns out pretty well.
But could never achieve that crust, that texture, and that tanginess that I have long sought.
Until that cloche came home, and until I stumbled on that no-knead recipe in a free magazine.
It’s a strange recipe though. Only four ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast – in unusual proportions. Toss the dry stuff in a bowl and whisk it together, add the water, and stir it into a rough a ragged mess. Cover it, stick it some place warm, and forget about it until at least 18 hours later. Then all you do is scrape it out onto a floured surface, turn it on itself a couple of times, flatten it and add anything you might want inside – if you so choose (rosemary and garlic, sunflower seeds, cheese, whatever) – fold it up and turn it once or twice. Let it rise for a couple of hours, and toss it into a dutch oven (The recipe says to use a heavy dutch oven, I opted to use my new cloche. It’s basically the same idea, just upside down, and clay instead of cast iron. Logic dictated it should work the same, or at least closely enough.) preheated to 450F.
And the wondrous smells began.
I stared in disbelief at it when it came out the first time. After letting it cool I tapped it and was so excited. I called Kirk over and shared my excitement…happily rapping the crust and saying “can you hear that?!?!” “Do you know what that means?!?!”
Of course he didn’t share my excitement until he was actually handed a piece, lathered in butter. I mean, the poor guy has had Nirvana snatched out from under his nose too many times probably. But if I was excited about it…he was getting there too.
And then we bit into it.
It was everything I’d been trying to bake for all those years!
But I’m a scientist at heart, and a single event does not a pattern make. Once is interesting, so I tried again last week. This time I didn’t add the rosemary and garlic the recipe called for, and chose to make a naked loaf.
It was perfect.
But twice is only a potential coincidence.
So I had to try again….
Today’s loaf was filled with sunflower seeds, and it turned out beautifully too.
So we finally have a pattern, and I seem to have discovered a foolproof, simple, bread recipe.
I’ll probably still use the bread-machine on rare occasions, and I’ll definitely still make other, more intensive loaves, but this was a revelation. Good bread can be made easily, with minimal fuss, just patience.
Kirk has made me promise that bread will once again become a staple for the weekends. And now that I have what really amounts to an idiot proof recipe and technique, I’m game.