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Rising Action: Making Bread at Home

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William Alexander lives in Cornwall and is the author of 52 Loaves (Algonquin, 2010) a detailed and personal account of his determined quest to master the peasant boule by baking a loaf a week for a year, tinkering and learning along the way. His travels take him to wood-fired ovens in New Jersey, a yeast factory in Canada, and a monastery in France, and he even grows and grinds his own wheat to try to understand the very source. There’s plenty of humor to leaven his obsession; a computer scientist, Alexander brings a dogged, methodical, winking, and somewhat curmudgeonly temperament to his mission. And there is much useful information in the book, including his final recipe and an easy method for cultivating a wild starter.

For all his hacking of the baking code, chasing down variables and analyzing them to the point of near exhaustion, Alexander’s final version is really very simple. A mix of flours, levain (live starter), water, and salt, given a brief rest (autolyse in French) to give the gluten development a head start, then about seven minutes of kneading before proofing and baking. Alexander’s peasant bread has a medium-brown crust that contrasts nicely with the firm yet open crumb inside. It’s got character enough to eat wonderfully by itself, and is not so full of holes as to be unfriendly to sandwich making. He did an awful lot of work so we don’t have to. 

A few years ago, a mini-craze of sorts swept the Internet like a Roomba: a no-knead bread recipe from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan. Taking the principle of Alexander’s autolyse to its logical extreme, Lahey discovered that yeast, left to its own devices, will develop beautiful gluten over the course of 12 to 18 hours at room temperature.

The wet, shaggy dough is shaped, dumped into a shrieking hot Dutch oven, covered, and baked off inside the regular oven (the cover comes off toward the end to brown the crust). Confining the wet dough to such a small space provides something that is hard to achieve without a commercial bread oven: steam, which makes for a shiny, crackling crust. The appeal of such a method is twofold; there’s nearly no work involved, and the crust is simply unbelievable. But wet dough can be hard to deal with, and sticks to everything it touches. When combined with a big iron pot that’s wickedly hot, it can be intimidating. Variations with drier dough exist, and are worth seeking out. (Here is Mark Bittman's no-knead bread recipe, via the New York Times.)



Fire in the Hole

Alexander vividly recounts the painful disaster that his homemade outdoor clay oven was to build, and he hardly uses it now that it’s built, but there are others who fervently espouse the virtues of having such a structure on one’s property. For those of us who love wood-fired pizza, this ancient device is the only way to truly achieve the scorched, blistered glory that seven minutes at 700 degrees can deliver. And the amazing oven spring (the dramatic final rise that occurs when a loaf hits the hot oven and the yeast goes into overdrive) cannot be duplicated in a conventional oven. Some books downplay the work involved; a well-built brick oven is not a one-weekend job. But it’s not hard for the handy, and can become the focus of every cookout for the rest of time, and you’ll never pay for a pizza again, so there’s that.

The Bread Builders (Chelsea Green, 1999) by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott is an inspiring how-to for anybody serious about fabricating an oven. Another good resource, from CIA instructor Eric Kastel, is Artisan Breads (Wiley, 2010). It clearly and comprehensively covers a wide range of recipes and techniques from basic to advanced. Jeffrey Hamelman, bakery director at King Arthur flour in Vermont, has written Bread (Wiley, 2004), which is another excellent choice for someone looking for one book to get started with.

The point is to find how breadmaking best integrates into the rhythms of your life and let it become part of your weekly ritual; it’s about experimenting a bit with methods and recipes until you ease into an understanding of the process, and then settling on the version that fits. “It’s much more wait than work” is how Leader puts it, and with a little practice you can go to work or to bed with complete confidence that your tiny helpers are busy metabolizing away until you’re ready to bake. There’s no need to worry about being a bit off with your timing; dough that has not fully risen can quickly be patted into flat circles and cooked in a buttered skillet (or, even better, on the grill) to make chewy, tangy flatbread that will sop up anything you throw at it. Soon enough, you’ll settle on the recipe your kids clamor for, or that friends ask you to bring over, or that makes a sublime substrate for your morning butter and jam. And speaking of kids, there’s no better way to combine physics, chemistry, biology, history, and a little elbow grease into one delicious lesson.

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