I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t lift napkin corners and dig into a warm bread basket before a meal. Even if you’d refrain, the likelihood is you’d do so despite your own desire. The bread calls to you, its heat emanating from the cloth, scent wafting toward you. No matter where you are or what’s on your mind, fresh baked bread takes you to a warm and fuzzy place devoid of cold pricklies. Jen is no exception to this experience; as such, she spent years chasing down an effective recipe for easy Italian bread. Naturally, she discovered it one day via an internet search, which directed her to YouTube where Mark Bittman from the NY Times interviewed Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey who showed off his no-knead bread recipe that’s “so easy even a four year-old can make it.” Jen knew she was finally on to something. The only thing Lahey insisted upon was a pot with a lid that could withstand 475-500 degree oven temperatures; a dutch oven serves this need well. Jen also liked that the recipe included simple ingredients; her background in nutrition necessitates a need to know exactly what's in the food she eats, so this simple recipe was perfect.
Though Jen did not fall upon this recipe rummaging through her great-grandmother’s trunk hidden in the attic for decades, the bread has become a traditional staple in her home; it’s her husband “Keith’s favorite thing in the world,” and it’s a must whenever they’re graced with guests. But Jen doesn’t hold out for company only, she often makes this bread twice a week. As a result, she’s come up with a number of ways to make it her own: occasionally she’ll mix in a little whole wheat flour; sometimes she splits the dough and makes two pizza crusts; other times she adds carrot or apple juice. She does, however, insist upon one particular tool each time she makes a loaf: a plastic whipped butter container of which her household has no shortage—as Keith is a whipped butter aficionado. Jen’s also pretty particular about sprinkling the dough with corn meal even though the recipe offers the option to use whey flour instead.
She made two loaves for us: one with the primary ingredients and another with cinnamon and raisins. While this recipe is basic with simple ingredients, it does require time, so Jen prepared the dough in advance. In fact, she recommends you work within a minimum twelve hour time frame and says you can increase the yeast and do a four hour rise, but the bread turns out holy, I mean with more holes, when you allow it to rise between twelve and nineteen hours.
One gets a sense of pure joy watching Jen gaze at the crusty loaf after it comes out of the oven. She sets it down with more care than some parents treat their children and settles in to watch. After a few minutes, the first crackle as gas escapes the loaf. She leans in, examining. She breaths in, exhales a sigh explaining how beautiful the bubble (a result of the bread’s cracking) will be to cut into. Jen sees beauty in this bread; it is a work of art for her, not just a side dish. In fact, I don’t recommend negating bread’s place at the table in a conversation with Jen: no carb conversations or calorie counting can overcome the sheer power of the no-knead bread as she saws through it searching for holes. Holes that soak up oil and vinegar and then release onto your tongue the perfect blend of flavor, and texture—a spongy crunch. After slicing, Jen arranges the loaves on platters, steps back and admires them. We can see why she makes this recipe twice a week; it’s a new creation every time.
No-Knead Italian bread (adapted from Jim Lahey's recipe)
3 cups flour 1½ cups water ¼ teaspoon yeast (I use rapid rise) 1¼ teaspoon salt extra flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal (for dusting) Olive Oil (optional to coat the bowl) Mix all of the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add water and incorporate by hand or with a wooden spoon or spatula for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 12 to 20 hours at room temperature.
Remove the dough from the bowl and fold once or twice. Let the dough rest 15 minutes in the bowl or on the work surface. Next, shape the dough into ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; place the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Cover the dough with a cotton towel and let rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 450-500°F. Place the pot in the oven at least 30 minutes prior to baking to preheat. (The hotter the pot, the better!) Once the dough has more than doubled in volume, about 30 - 60 minutes, remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot seam side up. Cover with the lid and bake 30 minutes , then remove the lid and bake 15-30 minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned. Remove the bread from the pan and let cool at least 15 minutes before cutting or eating. The loaf will make a wonderful cracking sound as let out a little gas! (One of the best sounds you can ever hear!)
This basic dough can be used for some many things. Let your imagination run wild! Some things I love to do:
Cinnamon Raisin Bread: Add two tsp Cinnamon and one cup golden raisins to the dry ingredients for Cinnamon Raisin Bread. In place of water you can use Apple Cider, or our new favorite Vanilla Mango Green Tea! Any non carbonated liquid can be used!
Wholewheat Pizza Crust: Use one cup whole wheat flour in place of the regular flour. I am able to make two thin crust 15 x 10 inch pizza's or one deep crust pizza! For the pizza, cover a work surface generously with cornmeal and use a rolling pin to roll the corn meal into the crust. This not only tastes fantastic, but it is crucial so the dough doesn't stick.
Don't be afraid to experiment with the liquid you use or the items you want to add. We haven't had a bad loaf yet! I should warn you though, once you start making it, you may wake up in the middle of the night or day dream during an important meeting about ingredients and things you want to try with the recipe!