Sunday morning olive bread
It was my friend K who introduced me to good food. I'm invited there for dinner tonight and she has honored me by asking me to bring my olive bread. She is a gifted cook, a provider of reliable wines, and a treasured person, and we fear we might lose her soon.
After I'd known K a few years and started to get a clue about food, I spent a couple of years in the south of France. Dwelling in a village with two bakeries and two patisseries within a three-minute walk ruined me for American bread. (I say nothing about the chocolatier.) I first ate olive bread at the "boulangerie rouge" (so named for its politics) kept by one of my music friends near Marseilles. They baked it once a week in a wood-fired oven and sold it on Sundays only. The oven was older than the house, as the original house was destroyed by a bomb in WW II, leaving the oven standing alone. After the bread was baked, the oven retained enough heat to cook the sublime rabbit stew we ate for Sunday dinner.
When I came back to the U.S., I didn't buy any bread except, occasionally, pumpernickle which of course is nothing like French bread but has some character. Didn't make any either, from lack of time and confidence. Then I moved to Philadelphia and discovered that I could buy "artisan" bread for three or four dollars a loaf. Those were flush times and I bought a lot of it. Even after leaving Philly I fed my cravings via Panera, where the bread is (or was, I don't know about now) decent. Fleeing further into the hinterlands, I got beautiful loaves from the local organic farmers. But they didn't bake in the winter, and I was now thoroughly hooked. What to do?
A little googling revealed that the secret of the bread I like, which has a serious crust, great chewy texture, and large holes, is water. So I started trying methods. Or I planned to, but the New York Times short-circuited the whole adventure with the ultimate fool-proof, no-work bread method. Which I'm using to make the olive bread for K's dinner tonight. Which you can use to make yourself a four-dollar loaf of bread for about 15 minutes of work, 75 cents of materials, and a kitchen that will be hot for about an hour.
The NYT published this as "No-Knead Bread", adapted from Jim Lacey of the Sullivan Street Bakery. Here's the basic procedure as I do it now:
You need flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil, and a Dutch oven. I use a cast-iron pot I got from Amazon for $25. Diameter 10 inches; smaller would probably work too.
Measure 1 2/3 - 1 3/4 cups of warm (not hot!) water and stir in 1/4 teaspoon of yeast. Get a large bowl and dump in 3 cups of flour, less than a tablespoon of salt, and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil if you like. Stir in the water-yeast mixture and mix thoroughly. It will be sticky and messy. Cover the bowl and put it in a warm place for 12 to 18 hours. Longer is better.
Thoroughly flour a board and scrape the "dough", which will have a jelly-like consistency, onto it. Fold it over on itself a couple of times, cover with a towel, and rest 15 minutes. (I don't know why.) Then "shape it into a ball"--this is not really possible as it will immediately schlump into more of a mound--cover again, and let it rise another two hours. It will about double in size.
Thirty minutes before the end of the rising time, oil the pot, put it in the oven, and set it to 450 degrees (Fahrenheit).
When the dough has risen, take the pot out of the oven, and scrape the dough into it with a rubber scraper. It will look a mess. Shake the pot a little to even it out, cover, and bake 30 minutes. Take off the lid and continue baking about 15 minutes or until it looks and feels right. Tip it out of the pot and cool it on a rack.
The longer the rising time, the better (up to a point I guess). If you keep tasting the dough as it rises, you'll see how it develops a sourdough-like quality after about 12 hours, due to the growth of naturally-occurring bacteria. I'm tasting some now--mmmmmmmm.
I've only tried a few variations since the basic loaf is so terrific. One, of course, is olive bread. Big deal. Just take a few kalamata or other tasty olives, pit them, halve them, and mix them with the flour before adding the water/yeast mixture. Another is whole grain bread. The version I like best is half whole wheat, half white bread flour, and a big handful of sunflower seeds and/or pepitas. I use a bit more water with whole grains, the dough doesn't rise as high, but it still works.
In the cool weather I make this bread once or twice a week. It's so little work it's almost a crime not to. Five minutes of measuring and mixing, and it's on its way to something I'm happy to bring to K's dinner.