In the book, the author ponders over buying pre-made food and decides to try her luck with making her own bread after she hears about a popular New York Times recipe. It sounded easy enough and after I read that she could do it, I was pretty confident that I'd make a tasty loaf, even though I'm not really a great baker. I bought some yeast a couple weeks ago while I was at the store and finally this weekend I set out to make my own bread.
Things got off to a rocky start and went downhill from there (but I'm going to spoil this blog and let you know this story does have a very happy ending, so carry on fellow readers). As I started to gather together the ingredients (flour, yeast, salt and water) I realized that I was lacking the full 3 cups of the most essential ingredient, flour. I wasn't sure if maybe I hadn't unpacked the rest or if maybe I just had brought it over to someone's house and forgotten it there. (Probably the latter, oh well, flour is inexpensive!) I had about 2 cups and some change so I decided to cut the recipe by 1/3. Since there were countless blogs about people making this bread, doing stupid things and still making a perfect artisan delicious looking loaf, I figured I couldn't mess this up!
I started the bread at 9pm on Saturday night and didn't start baking until about 4pm on Sunday. The reason why this bread is so popular is because it requires no work beyond throwing minimal ingredients in a bowl and letting it sit for 12-18 hours. This is trick #1. The yeast love a wet environment and this dough is sticky and moist. Since you aren't kneading the bread to release the gluten fibers (as you would in the days of old, before us lazy bakers came around) you need to let this baby hang out on your counter all night.
You can make the loaf completely how it is written or you can add extra ingredients. The reason why I'm not a really good baker is because baking usually requires precise measurements and I'm a non-recipe, improvisational type cook. I live to throw together random delicious meals from whatever I have in my fridge or cupboards. I don't even own a teaspoon/tablespoon set! Thankfully I have a measuring cup, or else I'd be completely lost.
Then it was time to cover it with plastic wrap and wait. Since it was about 9pm, I decided tomorrow afternoon would be a good time for baking! I wanted to make sure that the yeast had enough time to do their thing and I was instructed to not bother the dough until I saw little bubbles.
The next stage is probably the most labor intensive stage. I started to laugh when I wrote that because for me this is where I realized I made a big mistake and it did turn out to be quite a bit more work, but for everyone else, it's really not hard or labor intensive at all, I promise! You might get some sticky dough on your hands if you don't coat them well with flour. It seemed like a lot of people used a spatula in this step though.
The recipe says to turn the bowl upside down and plop the dough out onto a well floured surface. Fold it over onto itself once (this is where the spatula comes in I think) and then let it rest for 15 minutes. I don't understand that but I followed the directions! My dough was really, really sticky and wet. At this point I realized that I used the wrong flour. I also found the other flour, the one I was supposed to use. Note: you can use bread flour but it isn't necessary, but make sure you at least use all purpose flour.
When I was packing to move into my current apartment, I hastily filled and labeled my resuable plastic containers with bulk items, like flours, sugars, rice and beans. I didn't have enough containers, but tried to get most of my baking items stored away. When I got the remainder of the flour out to coat my cutting board, I realized it was pastry flour because of the way it felt. I confirmed this when I dug through a box and found my all purpose and a small bit of bread flour. I really need to unpack everything....
In an attempt to save my bread I added some wheat gluten and coated everything with bread flour. I also took my really wet dough and folded about 1/2 a cup of flour into it then formed a ball with the folded seam side down, like it said in the recipe. I think that the dough is supposed to be pretty darn sticky and a dough ball probably isn't easily achieved but don't fret, just do what you can. It'll cook into a nice round shape and if it's a little funny looking it just looks more homemade, and therefore, even better!
Before the dough is done rising here is trick #2 - you need to preheat your oven to 450 degrees with the pan you are going to cook the bread in. Before you even attempt this recipe you need to make sure you have at least a 3-4qt pot/dish with a lid. Preheat the lid too. One of my next purchases is going to be a le crueset dutch oven knock off (because they are $300, whaaat?) that is small enough to fit inside my toaster oven, but big enough to bake bread.
The reason why a lid in imperative is because it traps in the moisture. As the bread cooks and releases all that water that is in the mushy wet dough, the humidity levels stay high in the pan. I am pretty certain this is what creates the chewy (but not too chewy) crispy perfect crust. Preheating the dish with the lid on means you're already bringing the pan and the air inside up to temperature, which makes for a quick bake!
Be careful when you remove the pan to plop the dough in because it is really hot! I would advise to pull out the oven rack a little, take the lid off and let the dough fall off the parchment paper into the pan seam side up. Put the lid back on and set your timer to 30 minutes. The best thing about my toaster oven and the fact that I only had a small pyrex dish and a round cheesecake baking tray as my "lid" is that I was able to watch it cook.
The downsides to a toaster oven is not knowing if things will come out properly or even cook. The lack of space is a big issue too. Since I only had a small dish I split my bread into two balls at the end and made two loaves.
Here is the bread after I put it in the oven:
10 minutes into cooking and it's starting to rise - I started feeling like I may have been successful at this point:
25 minutes into cooking and it's looking great!:
After 30 minutes the lid needs to come off and the bread should be baked for about 10-15 more minutes to brown it up. Since I was cooking a smaller batch I pulled the lid at 25 minutes and then let it brown for 5 and it came out looking like something I wanted to eat right away. I was so hungry and it smelled wonderful. This freshly baked bread yeast smell is the one I like!
You're suppose to let it cool but my loaf was tiny and I couldn't wait so I cut off the first piece, took a couple pictures and dug in. I added a sliver of butter and it was so amazing that I actually ate the entire loaf before the second one was done cooking. Clearly, this was a big win!
Yay! My toaster oven has proven itself worthy! Doesn't it look delicious? Now you should go make some too! Let me know what flavor combinations and herbs you put in your bread. I have a few good ideas for my next loaf.
Here is a link to the official recipe. Have fun!