Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread, with a twist

So, way back in 2006, Mark Bittman posted a no-knead bread recipe. It's super-simple and I've made it several times (or made it several times back when I was still eating gluten). I remember the first time I had it was at my friend Bekah's house, as a loaf of bread her husband made and which they also, if I remember correctly, served with a winter-squash soup. It was lovely.

In 2008, Bittman posted a speedier version that had a much shorter fermentation time and used more yeast (to speed up the process). I haven't tried this version, but in my mind I prefer the 2006 recipe because I usually (try to) plan major baking projects ahead of time. 

In this case, I just barely had time to plan ahead for this bread and almost wound up doing the speedier bread (which would have been more difficult with an 8-hour work day schedule, in all honesty.) While we were doing laundry earlier this month, E suggested we invite our friend Caitlin over for dinner, stew or soup, perhaps? I agreed and E asked if I could make bread.

"Sure," I replied, as I tried to work out how I might make bread on the same day I also worked. That's when I remembered Bittman's recipe. Simple to mix up, simple to work on when I finally got home in the evening, it could easily be ready in time for a mini dinner party on a work night. Perfect. Especially perfect when Caitlin said she liked butternut soup and when E said she wanted it chunky, with other vegetables. More on that in another post. Bread would be the perfect accompaniment to butternut squash soup, the house would smell lovely, and I'd have my GF bread I made a few days before. I looked forward to the evening--and to planning with E which butternut squash recipes we would base our soup on.

The next night--the night before our dinner with Caitlin, I started the sponge for this bread--which also turns into the dough, so perhaps "sponge" isn't the right word, and then let it sit out for nearly 24 hours (the recipe says at least 12 hours, preferably 18) and hoped it wouldn't overproof. I've never actually had this bread overproof, but I'm sure it's possible.

When I got home from work, I incorporated a little more flour, folded the dough over on itself a couple of times and let it rise another 15 minutes. Then I rolled it into a ball shape, coated it generously in flour and let it rise, on top of a warm oven (I was also roasting butternut squash that afternoon) on the oven for 1 hour and 45 minutes (the Bittman recipe calls for 2 hours, but because I had it rising in a warmer-than-70-degrees place, I was able to speed up the process a bit). I preheated a cast-iron pan (that had a lid, a good lid is key, I didn't preheat the lid) and then rolled the dough into the pan.

The dough actually didn't roll into the pan all that well. Bittman's recipe calls for using a towel, but E and I don't own tea towels and terry cloth won't work. Not to worry though, it didn't make a difference in the way the bread baked up--or not really. The holes in the dough were smaller than the last few times I made it.

My pan was also a little smaller than ideal, but I didn't feel like digging out my larger one. The bread baked up to have a very crunchy crust and a chewy inside, like good French bread. Next time E wants French bread, maybe this is what I'll make instead (only without herbs). Because I used a smaller pan, the bread did take about another 30 minutes to finish baking and it was just done on the inside.

Because the herbs marinate in the dough so long, you really don't need a lot to craft a loaf that has a nice, herbal flavor. Fines herbes are fairly mild herbs, which is also nice because they don't overwhelm the loaf. Caitlin and E had this with butter they made themselves.

This bread, along with the butternut squash soup, would make a perfect pre- or post-Thanksgiving day meal. It tastes (and smells) like autumn. One of E's co-workers, when she heard what we were having, said this was "autumn soul food." Indeed, it is.

Herbed No-Knead Bread
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon fines herbes

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast, salt and herbs. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Careful not to overwork it here--this is the easiest spot to just start kneading the dough, if you're used to that step in making bread. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour (I put it back in the bowl); put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour. Cover with another cotton towel (or be like me and cover the whole bowl in a plastic bag from the grocery store) and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

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