I can't really think of many things more delightful than a loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven, with butter slathered all over it. That smell of baking bread must be as old as time. A smell smelled through the ages! To me it signifies home, comfort, safety, the soother of all woes. To tell you the truth, I've never been a huge bread person, but hot out of the oven, it's a sacred ritual and I always make sure to be hovering around if a new loaf is about to be born. Growing up, my stepdad would bake bread every Saturday. He'd have his favourite tunes cranked up to the max, a towel thrown over his shoulder, and he would do the weekly mop of the kitchen floor, and bake a batch of bread to last us the week.
The recipe comes from New York baker Jim Lahey who owns Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. He came up with the recipe as a way to replicate, in a home oven, that crunchy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside texture of wood-fired Italian bread. He says this recipe is so easy that even a 4-year old can make it. My roommate first heard about it through a friend and borrowed his book My Bread from the library. She kept renewing it for months so it sat on our counter for a long time and we eventually all became converts. Basically, anyone who comes into contact with this recipe starts to pop out fresh loaves worthy of the finest boulangeries. And with that comes the inherent responsibility to share the secret with everyone you know, so beware because this recipe may turn you into a no-knead bread missionary.
The best part is you can't really mess it up. Even if you don't get it quite right, it will still probably be the best bread you've ever made. I like to use 2 parts unbleached wheat flour and 1 part spelt for my bread. Usually, I make a walnut & apricot bread loaf: my ultimate favourite (if you try this one, be sure to use the dark brown organic apricots, they are so much better! Just throw in about a cup of whole walnut halves and whole apricots). Next runner-up is rosemary olive bread (throw in a bunch of fresh rosemary and chopped kalamata olives)... basically, if you're feeling inspired, get creative with your bread, throw in some fennel seed, caramelized onions, whatever strikes your fancy! For the sake of today's post, I just made a plain white batch using organic unbleached white flour.
ONE VERY IMPORTANT TIP: As tempting as it may be to slice into your loaf right away, be sure to wait an hour before taking the first slice otherwise the bread will be gummy.
AND ONE MORE NOTE: Water amounts are a variable thing in bread, the exact amount depends on many things including the type of flour you're using, and also it's a matter of personal taste. I like a wet dough with this recipe but I find my loaves come out quite flat. Lately, I've been cutting down on the water a little and shaping the loaves with lots of flour to get them into a nice boule shape. But I like the texture of the flat loaves better. My roommate prefers the boules. We've been discussing this in great detail lately, and it's an endless process of tweaking and tasting and discussion… the fun continues!
3 cups flour (Jim Lahey recommends a minimum of 2 cups white unbleached flour for best results. The third can be spelt, whole wheat, rye, whatever you fancy, or just all white)
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup water
Roughly mix all ingredients together. The dough will be slightly more wet and sticky than regular bread dough. Cover and let sit between 12 to 24 hours. (I find the results are best at 24 hours, your dough will be nice and bubbly)
Pick up your dough and fold it over onto itself a few times. Put it back in the bowl. Cover and let sit for another 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 450 F. Put a lidded dutch oven / cast iron pot in the oven for about 15 minutes to get it piping hot. Remove from the oven and sprinkle semolina or cornmeal in the pot to prevent the bread from sticking. Dump your mound of dough in there and swiftly put the cover back on.
Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid. Bake for another 15 minutes. Let the bread sit for an hour before cutting into it. That's it, that's all!
Oh, and happy Valentine's Day everyone!