On Eating and Loving Food

Baking bread, the slow, easy way, on a snowy day

Like the Little Red Hen, I baked the bread, with no help from my friends
Posted:  Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 8:45am

On the day of that gorgeous, serene snowfall last week (easy for me to say – I didn’t lose power) Sue Mello sent me a link to a recipe for bread: “Slow bread.”

The headline, on Slate.com, reads: ‘Time is on Your Side,’ with the subhead: ‘Kneaded bread vs. no-knead bread is a false dichotomy. You should be making slow bread.’

I started reading the instructions, after the very entertaining story about slow bread, and why we should all be making it. I was convinced.

“For thousands of years, we made bread with no difficulty, cooking it in primitive ovens or even on hot stones,” it read. “It was a vital foodstuff from the moment of its discovery, around 6000 B.C.” Yikes! 6000 B.C.?

Back in the good old days the theory was if you knew how to knead, then you could make bread.

But apparently, according to the article, the most important part of the bread-making process isn’t kneading or not-kneading.

“Leave the dough alone for long periods of time, over and over again,” it read. “Every single step in the bread-making process is improved if it’s followed by some period of sleeping, watching TV, reading a magazine, writing an opera, etc.”

Of course I would have added “...or sipping a manhattan.”

It was a perfect stay-at-home day – perfect for baking bread, and writing about it.

Oddly, I had bought bread flour for the first time ever the day before, after getting Marilyn Gorneau’s recipe for pizza dough. I had also bought yeast for the first time in, like, 25 years.

I love when stuff like that happens.

So I got out all the ingredients: Flour, yeast, salt and water. That’s all. Most of us have at least two of those in our pantries :-).

Then I made the preferment (starter). I had never heard that word in relation to baking bread, but no doubt all you bread-bakers out there have. It’s more fun to say than starter, and it makes me feel a little smug using it.

Sue made her preferment around an hour before I made mine. She had already shoveled, lost her power, gotten power back, and made her preferment :-). I was still in my bathrobe. But I was writing, and making bread, so that was okay.

I mixed up my preferment at 10:15. Then I waited. I was supposed to hold off bothering the dough for at least six hours – up to overnight.

I read that the longer the yeast is allowed to ferment, the better. “That’s the first wondrous thing that happens if you take it slow,” the recipe read. “As the yeast converts flour’s carbohydrates into flavor compounds and alcohols, it excretes carbon dioxide, filling the dough with tiny bubbles of gas. These bubbles will form the inner structure, or crumb, of your finished loaf.

“It’s important to let the bubbles grow for quite a while, an hour or two, or four or five.”

Cool huh?

I ended up letting the dough sleep in the fridge overnight, while Elliot, Ruby and I slept in, and on, the bed. The next morning, after the snowfall of a good foot and a half, I, just like the Little Red Hen, baked the bread, with no help from my friends.

In case you don’t know the story of the Little Red Hen, she, like I, lived with a lazy dog and a sleepy cat, among other creatures. One day she decided to bake some bread, starting with planting wheat seeds. She goes on to gather the wheat, and lug it to the mill, all by herself, because her friends were all too slothful to help. When she finally baked the bread she asked who would help her eat it. Of course they all offered.

She got back at them by eating it all herself, which is exactly what I did over the next two days :-).

The Slow Bread story reads thus: “The only step that does not reward sloth is eating the finished bread. Most recipes recommend letting it cool for an hour ... after taking it out of the oven, but this is the height of perversity.” It says after a brief cooling period to wait no more. “You can eat good bread at room temperature in any bakery in the world. There’s only one place where you can eat it warm.”

Here’s the recipe:
“Time: 500 seconds of work, 116,100 seconds of sloth.”

The preferment: Mix ¼ cup flour with ¼ tsp. yeast and 3½ TBLSP. warm water. Stir until uniform, cover with plastic wrap, and leave  for six to 24 hours, or longer. Do not disturb!

Then add a cup of flour, a tsp. of yeast, and ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water. Mix until uniform. Cover and leave for 15 minutes, then stir in about a tsp. of salt, then stir in another TBLSP. or two of flour. Cover with plastic wrap and have a manhattan.

Let the dough rise and ferment for an hour or more then dust it and your hands with flour and lift out of the bowl. Let it stretch, then fold it over onto itself. Stretch and fold a few times, return it to  the bowl, re-cover, and leave it alone for an hour or more. Repeat the stretch-and-fold step at least once, more if you want.

Pour a good amount of olive oil into a cast iron skillet (I used) or square baking dish no more than 12 inches across. Sprinkle in some coarse salt. Dump the dough into the dish, and coat it in the oil and salt. Cover and leave it alone for at least 15 minutes, or as long as you damn well please. (I left mine for 15 minutes. Sue left hers for almost three days. They both came out great.)

Spread the dough out to the edge of the dish. If it resists, cover and leave it alone for a few minutes, then try again. It should be lightly soaked in olive oil. If you feel like it, pop any very large bubbles on the surface with a fork; otherwise they will swell enormously.

Cover the dough again with plastic and proof it, about an hour. Preheat the oven to 450. Bake 20 to 30 minutes, until it looks like focaccia.

This might be the best bread I’ve ever had. It’s certainly the best I’ve ever made. Whatever. Trust me. It’s easy, and it’s wicked good.

Next up: Cauliflower in all its delicious, healthy glory.

See ya next week!