Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Liveblogging the Bread

No, I don't have any pictures to show you. The lighting in my kitchen is appallingly bad and my camera is not a good enough one that it can make up for the bad lighting.

If you are just landing here, here is the recipe.

King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour--I just happened to grab that before I found the all-purpose flour. I doubt that it makes a difference in this case.

Yeast: I used a very generous 1/4 teaspoon. Heaping, almost. I didn't have instant yeast, as called for in the recipe, so I made a couple of adjustments: that little extra bit of rapid rise, for example, and also adding about 1/8 teaspoon of sugar.

One of the blogs I saw (I think it may have been Smitten Kitchen, actually) suggests that 1/3 teaspoon of rapid rise yeast is the way to go. I may try that next time.

1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

Water: 1 5/8 cups of warm water.

I whisked the yeast, sugar, and water together in a big bowl this morning around 9. That's not a step that's called for in the recipe, but because the recipe also doesn't call for sugar and I wasn't using instant yeast, I wanted to give it a little head start.

Then I dumped in the flour, and, on top of the flour, the salt. Salt retards the action of yeast, which is why I dumped it on top. I have no idea if that made a difference at all.

I stirred it all together with a wooden spoon. The dough looked rough and shaggy, like the recipe says it should. I didn't find a picture of the what the dough should look like until later tonight, but when I did, it looked just like what I had made. So, I'm happy.

I let the dough rise without disturbing it for 12 hours. That seems to be the minimum rise time described by nearly every account on every website I looked at. At 9 tonight, the dough looked swollen, bubbly, and by all accounts, a great deal like it was supposed to. I was comfortable with punching it down at this point.

A small aside: I didn't actually punch it down. I dumped it out onto a very clean, well-floured countertop, and with wet hands (the flour/water ratio seems to be important here) I gave it a couple of turns, then tucked the ends under to make a (basically) smooth ball of dough.

I did the 15-minute rest that the Bittman recipe recommends. Not every website mentions this rest. I didn't know if it was important or not, but I did err on the side of caution in this case. Usually I prefer to err on the side of error. We'll see how this all plays out. Anyway--rested on the counter, lightly covered with plastic wrap.

I put the bread down for the second rise on a clean, well-floured cotton flour sack towel. They cost about $6 for five of them, and we bought a bunch of them when Max was a baby. He had reflux and a regular burp cloth was more like something for him to projectile-vomit past than an effective parenting tool. I covered it with another well-floured towel. As it turned out, flouring this towel wasn't really necessary, as the bowl I used was deep and the dough never rose that high. I did worry a little about the dough drying out and getting that funky skin on it as it rose, but it didn't.

I let it rise for a full 2 hours. At the 1 hour mark, I had Dan wash the Dutch oven. As I mentioned before, ours is used so often that it's rarely clean. At the half-hour mark, I cranked the oven to 450, wrapped the plastic handle on the lid in several layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil (the manufacturer says it's safe without it; again, erring on the side of caution) and slid the pot and lid into the oven to preheat.

Half an hour later, my kitchen smells odd. I should clean the oven more often.

I slide the pot out of the oven (using potholders! Big, thick ones. I think it's almost as important to have faith in your potholders as your spouse, and to not have that faith betrayed. You'll never again trust either a cheating spouse or a half-assed potholder; ask anyone who's had either) and take off the lid. The pot, which went into the oven dry, releases a puff of slightly odd-smelling steam. Okaaay.

This dough is extremely sticky. Following one blogger's advice, I put a big square of parchment paper over the mouth of the pot, then go to dump the bread onto the parchment, where, it is my hope, that it will all collapse into the pot. Not so: the dough is firmly stuck to the bottom towel, the one I had faithfully floured so thoroughly. I coax/peel/squish the dough off the towel and onto the parchment, carefully not burning myself on the extremely hot pot. Lid on, and into the oven.

"Is everything okay in there?" Dan asks as I shut the oven door. "Those are some...interesting smells." I love the smell of napalm in the morning. I set the timer for 30 minutes, and after some consideration (our oven does run a little hot) I back the temperature down to 425 and contemplate how to get all of the stuck-on dough off the towel without it destroying our washing machine. It's a question for another day.

The funky smell has faded from the kitchen by the time the timer goes off. I take the lid off the pot for the first time, not sure what I'll find. This part is embarassing to me. When I see what's in the pot, I actually utter the following phrase out loud:

"Oh, Daddy."

Lightly golden brown all over, slightly craggy and rustic-looking, yet expertly rounded, the half-baked loaf of bread is like something out of a very good, very expensive bakery. This is the appearance I had in mind when I got it into my head to bake bread: something that would impress the shit out of people. The last time I got this feeling was the first time I held Max after he was born: I can't believe I did this. It's what passes for cautious optimism around here. For the first time since changing my major from photojournalism to print journalism at the end of my freshman year of college, I regret not being a more skilled photographer.

At the 14-minute mark, I go back to the kitchen, take out a wire cooling rack, and set it on the counter. I open the oven door and make a noise I don't quite recognize--probably because I don't watch a lot of porn. The bread is...it's everything I hoped it would be. The crust is crackling and deeply golden.

My only regret, so far, besides not flouring the towel sufficiently, is that I have to wait until tomorrow morning to cut into this thing.

This morning, I walk into the kitchen and lift the towel I've draped over the loaf--it offers no protection whatsoever, but it makes me feel better for some reason. The crust has retained every ounce of its crisp character. It looks...just like bread should look when it's exactly right. It's a thing of beauty. I use a serrated knife to pierce the crust, and before I've even sliced a piece off, I can feel that the crumb is light, tender, airy, and yet substantial. Again, what it should look like when it's exactly right. Into the toaster it goes.

And I eat the toast with butter. It's the best loaf of bread I've ever made, by a long shot. It is not a perfect loaf of bread. It is just a tiny bit salty. While I'd never describe the inside as "gummy," like a few people have, the interior does have a certain...dampness, but not in an unpleasant way. I'm not sure how to describe it. Flavorwise, it's incredibly deep, developed, intensely yeasty. The flavor that long slow rise imparts is like seeing color TV for the first time. It changes how I feel about bread.

As far as what I'd compare it to: maybe a good ciabatta bread. Wonderbread it ain't. I think it would make an incredible sandwich, maybe one with cold leftover roast pork loin sliced thin, a little caramelized onion relish, grainy mustard; or smoked deli turkey, very thinly sliced granny smith apple, sharp cheddar, butter lettuce, and mayonnaise. I'm telling you, I could start a sandwich revolution. I also think it would make some seriously special garlic bread.

So, next time (which will probably be today, because I am just this kind of person), I will step the yeast up to 1/3 of a teaspoon and leave out the sugar. I will dial the salt back to 1 1/8 tsp. I will do the second rise on parchment. I will probably do 1/2 bread flour and 1/2 all purpose, just to see what the difference is.

At some point in the future, I'd like to acquire an oval dutch oven (mine is round) in a 3 1/2 quart or 4 quart size, to make more loaf-shaped loaves. I am very fond the one I have, but a smaller, more narrow one might make sense. I'd also like to try some add-ins: maybe kalamata olives and fresh rosemary, sun-dried tomatoes and basil, fresh thyme and grated romano cheese.

The bread is a very-nearly-unqualified success.


Sarah @ BecomingSarah.com said...

I have to admit that I'm not much for food blogging and recipes - sometimes, just not always - so I skimmed through some of the post that had to deal with the specifics of making the bread.

But I *DID* catch the part where you said "Oh, Daddy!" and that made the whole thing worth it. =P

Molly said...

Sarah--the funniest thing about it was that I said it totally involuntarily. It just popped out of my mouth. I've never said that (or anything remotely like it) before.

Dave M said...

I know of what you exclaim involuntarily as I've made the Oh Daddy bread several times. Only difference is I like nearly a tablespoon of salt. I think the best thing we've done with it is just toast it. Mmmmmmm..... toast.....