Baking Artisan Bread at Home

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RECIPES: Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread, Kalamata Olive Fougasse, Focaccia, Classic Oatmeal Bread

Traditional English pan-style breads with high rounded domes and a tender fine-grained crumb that many bakers mastered in years past are considered passé by today’s leading bread artisans. Today crusty, flavorful “old world” style breads have won the hearts of many bakers since they are actually much easier to make with little or no kneading required!

Two notable California bakeries, La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and Acme Bread Company in Berkeley, are credited for the renaissance of artisan breads in the 1980s. Locally, Gayle’s Bakery started baking crusty Tuscan style loaves of their signature Pain de Campagne and francese. Today, most of our local bakeries offer a wide selection of flavorful, rustic style breads.

In 2006, along came a baker who changed everything — Jim Lahey from New York City’s Sullivan St. Bakery — when he dropped a bread recipe bombshell on bakers: No Knead Bread.

“How could this be?” thought this skeptical baker, with hundreds of kneading hours under her apron belt. I’ve worked with my share of firm dough and challenging wet dough, but NO kneading? What about gluten development? Could less work really make better bread? And ANYONE could make good bread? Hmmmpf. I managed to ignore this ‘baking fad’ for at least three years.

While researching the internet for a traditional Lithuanian potato bread recipe, I stumbled upon a YouTube video interview with Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman of the New York Times and decided to watch a minute of it. Jim introduced his recipe claiming, “[Using this method] …a six year old can make better bread than almost any bakery in the country, including this one!” This I had to see.

Inspired, I went into my kitchen and pulled out a mixing bowl, measured the flour, yeast, salt and water. In less than a minute, I had stirred up my first batch of Jim’s no knead bread. “Yup. He’s right,” I thought to myself, “a six year old could do this.” I covered the shaggy, wet mass of dough and placed the bowl on the sideboard for its 15-hour “rest.”

The following afternoon, I was eager to finish the bread. After attempting to shape the dough (which was more like nudging it into a round-like object) and another 2-hour rise, the dough was finally ready for baking. I preheated my grandmother’s iron Dutch oven and lid in the 500° oven as instructed for 30 minutes. Then, I plopped the mishappen flabby dough into the hot Dutch oven, covered it with the lid and closed the oven door. I was doubtful that the doughy mass would turn into anything spectacular.

A half hour went by, and I removed the lid for the remaining baking time. I was impressed! Inside was a nicely risen loaf with fantastic aroma — I suddenly felt hopeful that this experiment hadn’t been in vain. Over the next 15 minutes the house filled with the heady aroma of bread baking, and then the bread was done.

I barely waited 20 minutes for the bread to cool and then sliced into the loaf while it was still slightly warm, generally a no-no in my book of bread rules. But I couldn’t resist. The crackly crust was superb and had the signature “rupture” (a striated crack) one looks for in a perfectly baked rustic loaf. The crumb was loose and similar to a ciabatta, but slightly moister. And finally – the flavor. I almost swooned with bliss. It was one of the best loaves of bread I’d ever made.

Flour, salt, yeast and water. What could be easier?

Pass the butter, please.

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