Thursday, February 18, 2010

Crusty Bread - The Easy Way

Crusty, light, chewy, slightly sweet and airy bread...

... all starts here.  A few sandy grains of sleepy yeast, a pinch of shard-like sea salt and a tad of crystalline sugar.  Add a little warm water, and voila, chemistry right in your kitchen.  

You don't have to be an accomplished alchemist to transform a few simple ingredients into culinary magic.  Let me tell you a tale...

I have been following the most amazing blogs as of late, some of which are mentioned to the right of this recipe, and those listed are only a few of the tasty morsels floating around in the vast world of foodie cyberspace!  There is a proverbial buffet of delicious and inspiring food blogs out there and a quick food blog search will reveal hundreds upon thousands of undiscovered gems often with dozens of blogs originating right from your area!  

While perusing my list of daily reads, I happened upon a post by Hannah over at a beautiful little blog titled Honey and Jam.  She had just posted a recipe for No-Knead bread and it didn't take me long to realize that I was in NEED of that bread. Hannah mentions that the recipe originates from a book called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day which I will definitely be purchasing at the soonest of opportunities... seriously.  One recipe in, and I am sold!

Let me tell you, after countless attempts at home bread-baking yielding very minimal if any success, this bread recipe takes the, takes the, yeast, umm.... well, this bread just rocks!  As Hannah mentions, this bread is light, airy, the innards are deliciously chewy in texture and the crust has the perfect crisp and crunchy bite!  To top that off, and trust me it gets better, this bread is the easiest most fool proof bread recipe I have had the pleasure of coming across!

I have to pay Hannah her dues for finding this gem of a recipe, and I pass it along to you all with a cautionary tip:  If you do not make this bread, you will be missing out on one of life's most pleasurable and magical experiences!  Although I find all the cooking, baking and concocting I do in the kitchen interesting, pleasurable and fun, producing fresh bread is one of the most satisfying of culinary endeavors!  Bread, to me at least, harkens back to the most basic of recipes in the most basic and primitive of times when there wasn't yeast for leavening, readily available sea salt for flavoring and golden olive oil for dipping.  

Bread takes me back far beyond my distant relatives and back to the beginning of our time when bread was a territorial currency of sorts depicting culture, ingredient availability and personal baking flare.  Every loaf of bread, every round of pita and each piece of bannock tells the story of the person baking it, the story of the ingredients used, the vessel it was baked in or on. I love bread for the its history and the way it secretly unites all cooks around the world transcending cultural barriers, geographical space and ideology.  Every country, culture and people is linked by a unanimous love and use for bread, and, like those people scattered across the globe, all breads are deliciously different and unique in their own way, contributing a little something different to our existence. 

Wow... have you ever put that much thought into bread?  I haven't, well, until this afternoon of course when I finally met the first of three golden loaves to come out of the oven.  I tell you, bread is a journey of the senses, and there isn't a food on the planet that gives me as much satisfaction to make as bread and now I have a recipe that will fail to disappoint even the most inexperienced of bakers!

Let's get to it shall we! 

Here's what you'll want to gather:

1 1/2 tablespoons of active dry yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar* (this I added)
3 cups warm water
6 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
poppy seeds (optional)

Without further adieu, the instructions:

In a large mixing bowl, the biggest you've got, combine the yeast, salt, sugar and water and stir a couple times to combine.  Set the bowl aside and busy yourself for about ten minutes until the mixture is foamy (indicating that your yeast is awake and ready to go!) 

*I originally omitted sugar of any kind, but after about five minutes of waiting for some action, it was apparent that I was going to have to get the party started myself.  I added about one tablespoon of sugar to the mix to give the dormant yeast something to snack on and what-a-you know, the little dudes woke up!

Next, unceremoniously dump 6 1/2 cups of all purpose flour into the bowl and using a wooden spoon, gently mix the concoction until there are no visible streaks of flour and all the moisture from the sides of the bowl has been incorporated.  Already you will have made the simplest of ingredients, water, flour, yeast into a delightfully springy and aromatic dough!  

At this point the relaxation can begin, for you and the bread!  Loosely cover the bowl with some plastic wrap to allow for the rising dough.  Set the bowl aside yet again for about two hours until the dough has sufficiently risen and deflated a bit.  

Now, as is mentioned elsewhere, this bread can be baked on either a pizza stone or a cast iron skillet, and seeing as how I had both, I rested the dough on the stone and baked on the skillet.  Everything turned out fine I think.  So, when the dough has at least doubled in volume, rip off about one third of the mass and form into a ball by pulling the dough together at the bottom to form a smooth top.  The bottom will be rough and puckered looking but it will even out during the resting time.  Once you have a rustic little ball of bread dough in your hands, set it on a cutting board, counter top or pizza stone sprinkled with cornmeal to prevent any sticking. Without covering the loaf, let it sit for another forty minutes.

With roughly twenty minutes of resting left, place your cast iron skillet or pizza stone on the middle rack of the oven and a cookie sheet on the bottom rack.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Slash the top of the loaf once or twice to a depth of about 1/4 inch and dust with a little flour.

When forty minutes has elapsed and the oven is nice and hot, transfer the loaf to the skillet and quickly pour one cup of hot tap water into the cookie sheet. QUICKLY shut the oven door to trap the steam inside the oven.  Now, without looking into it thoroughly, my sources tell me that this "steam sauna" of sorts helps achieve the crisp crust and chewy insides that we want in a good loaf of bread, and who am I to argue with a good recipe!

Bake the bread for about thirty to forty minutes until the crust has become a beautifulgolden brown.  Remove the loaf from the oven and let cool on a rack or, as I would do, eat immediately with softened butter... trust me, there is no other culinary delight that rivals freshly baked bread, hot out of the oven, with a little butter on top.  

Repeat the process with the remaining dough.  A variation here would be to sprinkle the tops of the loaves with poppy seeds, (as I have done,)or any other topping of choice while you are slashing the loaves.  While I love the naked, rustic nature of the bread, the little black and blue flecks of poppy seed just take this recipe over the top!

What else can I tell you?  This bread really is the bomb!  We tore into it at dinner, not so warm any longer but fresh none-the-less and we dipped its gleaming white and fluffy insides into fruity extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar from Vancouver Island's own Venturi Schulze Vineyards.  We remarked at the crispness of the crust, the chewy yet tender innards and the flavor, soft, delicious, home.  

Whether you are a veteran baker or a newbie just breaking into the bread scene, this no-knead recipe should and will become a part of your baking routine!  
Great find Hannah!

Love my friends, love is a fresh baked loaf of bread!


A Canadian Foodie said...

Absolutely gorgeous! I make bread all of the time and there is no going back. That is beautiful bread. GORGEOUS!

Nikki said...

Thanks Valerie! I agree that there is no going back. It is so satisfying making bread at home, especially when you can control exactly what goes in it, how its baked, etc. It is hard to pick up a dry loaf of grocery store bread once you have had the taste of home-made!

Kristopher Milligan said...


I can tell you why steam is the key ingrediet... In commercial baking ovens they often have steaming capability, in cooking school we just threw some ice cubes in just before putting in the dough.
What happens when dough hits the heat is the yeast rapidly forms gas bubbles and causes the bread to rise. The bread gluten acts as sort of a net to catch all the gases so that the bread rises, rather than just escaping and leaving the bread sad and flat.
As the bread starts to rise, the heat begins to cook the crust, and after a short while, the power of the gases are no longer more strong enough to push the bread past the crust.
The steam bath moistens the outside of the loaf, allowing the gases to push the loaf higher and higher, allowing for more space in the inside, and therefore a nicer texture and a well risen loaf.

I must make!

Isabelle said...

This looks like great bread. Another good recipe is no-knead bread. Google it and you'll find tons of references. Looks like it turns out similar to this one. Also, what kind of lens do you have?? I thought that picture of the yeast was beans at first! Great photos.

Nikki said...

Kris, Congratulations yet again, and thank you so much for your more than in depth background on the inner mechanics of baking bread with steam! I feel much more educated about bread now! Thank you for reading and sharing your knowledge, your brain is a virtual bread-basket of delights! No "bun" intended!
Isabella, thank you for the recommendation, I will look into the alternative bread recipe! The lens used for the shot is a Nikon 50 mm 1.4. It is my best friend, my bread and butter, an extra appendage... and completely fun!

molly said...

Stunning photos! Just popped over via Hannah's site, and am loving the two versions, side by side. Thanks.

Nikki said...

Thank you so much Molly! It is so easy to find inspiration on the web these days, with blogs like Hannah's and Ashley over at Butterfly Food, one can always find some fresh ideas in the dark of culinary routine! So glad you like the photos, thanks for stopping by for a read!

Ash said...

I keep seeing bread being made everywhere! I think I need to hop on board and make my own now!! This looks fantastic!!!

Nikki said...

Thanks Ashley! This bread is so delicious, I'm thinking about working some olives or sun-dried tomatoes into the dough next time... I think I could survive simply on bread and cheese for the rest of my life and be completely happy!