Homemade bread.

I’ve been a complete wimp when it’s come to those two words. As much as I like cooking, I’ve carefully avoided breadmaking for years, mostly for fear that it’s a labour-intensive process requiring special types of flour, fancy fresh yeast, elaborate kneading and expensive pieces of machinery, like electric bread makers and large mixers with paddle attachments. And that would just be to get the starter dough going. After that, there’d the issue of rising: Does it have to rise in a low heat oven? What if I don’t have a bread-proof setting on my oven? What if I kill the yeast? How will I know if I’ve killed the yeast? And so on and so forth.

Despite all this, I somehow own three cookbooks on bread – including Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads, Soups and Stews, a hefty tome that has sat on the shelf undisturbed, for four whole winters now. I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to bread, a place where I’ve been quietly stockpiling all sorts of recipes for leavened dough – from densely-flavoured sourdough to crackly baguette to Japanese milk toast – none of which I’ve actually made. But, despite my trepidation, I’m clearly interested in bread – the traditions, the techniques, the delicate alchemy that allows a sticky mass to transform into something crispy and chewy and ethereally light, all at once. It’s a magical beast. The unicorn of food. I’ve just been too timid to get close to it.

Then one day, out of nowhere, I decided to just effing do it already. It happened when I was making lunch with my mom over a long weekend this May:

Me: So, what if I made bread today?
Mom: Yeah, sure. If you want something easy, you should try that no-knead one Mark Bitterman did for the New York Times.
Me: You mean Mark Bittman?
Mom: Yeah, yeah…him. Anyways, it’s so easy. Seriously. There’s a video too. (she finds me the video online). Here, watch it. It’s all there. It’s super simple, you’ll see.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this no-knead recipe. My mom’s been a big proponent of it for years. It’s a version of the old European clay-pot method, modernised by baker Jim Lahey, of Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, and then popularised by Mark Bittman when he did a piece on it for The New York Times. In the video, Lahey walks us through his recipe, step by step, starting with the introductory promise that it’s so incredibly easy, “even a six year-old” (“or a four-year old!”) can make it.

With that bold endorsement in mind, I figured that if any recipe was going to help me cross the threshold into breadmaking, this would be it. The simplicity of Lahey’s recipe is what ultimately sold me. You don’t need to muck around with special bread flour or proofing or extraneous kneading, nor do you need an expensive mixer or a professional oven. All you need is –

flour
yeast
salt
water
your two hands

That, and a screaming-hot cast-iron Dutch oven. The cast-iron is an important part of the alchemy in this bread recipe, creating just the right amount of steam to get an airy interior and a crisp exterior. The idea is you set the pot in a 500ºF oven until it reaches temp, then toss in your dough (cover on for a bit, then cover off) and bake on high heat until the bread becomes crackly and lightly caramelised on the outside. Cast-iron pots retain heat extremely well, mimicking the qualities of a stone oven and a steam-injected oven at the same time. So, whether you’re a six year-old, or a four year-old (or even a monkey), the cast-iron pot will help your first attempt at bread look like this:

baked miche

It’s seriously one of the easiest things you’ll ever make. And when you’re cracking into that first piece of freshly baked bread, straight from your oven, you’ll be so happy you made a go of it.

Happy baking, friendlies x

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Notes on the recipe:

  • the dough needs at least 12 hours for the first rise, then another 2 hours for the second rise. Start the night before and let it rise overnight. The longer you let the dough rise (min. 12 hours, max 24 hours), the more flavourful it will become.
  • when my mom discovered this recipe, she quickly starting making her own adaptations, one of which resulted in a drop-dead gorgeous focaccia recipe. All you need to is add a bit of olive oil to the dough and stretch it out on a pizza pan for baking. (I’ve included her recipe for a cherry tomato version below). If you decide to make both the bread and the focaccia, just double the dough recipe.

Note on Dutch ovens: if you don’t already have one, it’s an insanely useful kitchen tool have. They’re especially practical in the winter – to make soups, stews, curries – but are a must-have for this bread recipe. If you’re worried about the financial commitment, remember that you don’t need to buy the top-of-the-line models (the ones that can go for upwards of $350 a pop); I got a Lagostina version on sale at Canadian Tire for $90 and it works like a charm. They usually come with a 10 or 25-year (and sometimes, lifetime) guarantee, so they’re in it for the long haul. Just make sure that you get one with a 500ºF-resistant metal knob on the cover so that you can make your bread (the ones that come with a hard plastic knob are no bueno).

Jim Lahey’s No-knead Bread – makes one white miche

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp dry yeast (like Fleischmann’s)
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 ½ cup water

Crucial kitchen tool: cast-iron Dutch oven

DIRECTIONS

STEP 1 – RISING

1) In a mixing bowl combine the flour, yeast and salt and blend with a whisk.

2) Pour in 1 1/2 cup of water and mix with a wooden spoon. Scrape any excess flour from the bottom and sides of the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well incorporated and form into a ball. The dough will have a stringy texture.

3) Place a piece of plastic wrap on the bowl to avoid the dough from drying out. Allow to rise in a warm dry, and draft free place for at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours. (I left mine at room-temperature on the counter-top overnight.)

STEP 2 – FOLDING & SECOND RISING

1) Dust a large piece of parchment paper, measuring about 24 inches with flour to prevent the dough from sticking during its second rising. Scrape the risen dough onto the floured parchment paper.

2) Sprinkle some flour on the dough and on your hand to prevent sticking. Lightly pat down the dough with your hands to form a piece measuring approximately 10 x 10 inches.

3) Fold one side to the centre; then fold the other side to meet the edge of the first side, like a book (see images below). Take the top edge and fold to the centre; take the bottom edge and fold to meet the top edge.

4) Turn the dough and place the folded side of the dough on the parchment paper and dust with flour to prevent sticking. Loosely wrap the dough in the parchment paper and place on a baking sheet. Cover with a tea towel. Transfer to a warm and dry place and allow to rise a second time (2 hours).

STEP 3 – BAKING

1) Place the cast iron Dutch oven with its cover, on the second rack from the bottom of the oven. Preheat the oven to 500ºF.  Dust the smooth side of the risen dough with flour to prevent it from sticking to the bottom while baking.

2) Once the oven reaches the required temperature.  Remove the pot from the oven and take the cover off. Place the dough, folded side up into the pot and cover. Bake for 30 minutes at 500ºF.

3) Remove the cover, reduce the heat to 450º F and bake for an additional 15-30 minutes until the crust becomes golden brown. To check if the bread is cooked, remove the loaf from the pot and tap the bottom with a knife – if it sounds hollow, the bread should be done. Cool on a baking rack.

baked miche

baked miche - detail

baked miche

baked miche

baked miche - section

—–

Tomato Focaccia

Mom’s Cherry Tomato Focaccia – makes one 12″ pie

  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus a little more for the topping)
  • 2 Tbsp grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1/4 cup sliced bocconcini or cubed mozzarella
  • salt flakes and freshly ground pepper (to taste)

1) Follow the directions for bread in the recipe above, adding 3 Tbsp of olive oil to the dough when you add the water.

2) After the first rise (see directions above), transfer the dough to a greased and floured 12″ pizza tray. Dust the dough lightly with flour, and with your hands spread out to the edges of the pizza pan. Place in a draft-free place to allow to rise a second time (2 hours).

3) While the dough is rising, prepare the topping by adding the prepared tomatoes in a bowl and toss with a drizzle of olive oil, the Parmigiano Reggiano, bocconcini (or mozzarella), minced garlic, and oregano. Season with salt and pepper.

Tomato Focaccia

4) Once the dough has risen a second time (after 2 hours), preheat the oven to 500º F. Spread the tomato mixture gently over the focaccia dough and bake at 500º F for 15-20 minutes.

Tomato Focaccia

Tomato Focaccia - detail

Tomato Focaccia

Tomato Focaccia - detail