Saturday, August 28, 2010

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread Recipe

















This post is not about bread, really.

I was in Switzerland last month, teaching. My ex-husband is from Switzerland. I did not want to return to his home country for fear of dredging up both wonderful and miserable memories of our time together there. I dreaded this trip. And I dreaded writing this post, obviously, or it wouldn’t have taken me more than six weeks to get to it. My one-week Swiss challenge was to take Switzerland back for myself, to separate the place from the person, and to enjoy, alone, the aspects of Switzerland that I once loved.

I only taught one morning class on Monday, and so in the afternoon, with Bern as my starting point, I took off for Montreux, and the Montreux Jazz Festival. Montreux, yeah, to hear a little free jazz, and have a beer, with the Lac Léman and the rising Alps and the setting sun as the music’s backdrop. My Swiss demi-tarif train pass is still valid, a pass which allows me to purchase half price train tickets anywhere in the country, and so off I went. Dig it.

In the middle of the week, I spent the afternoons sunbathing by the Aare river in Bern’s crowded public park, and partook of the Bernese summertime ritual of walking far upstream, near naked and barefoot, to jump in the river and float quickly down. I tried swimming upstream to hold my spot, and, unsuccessful, wondered how Olympic swimmers would fare as I edged slowly further and further toward the red final exit signs, and the poles that I wanted to neglect to grab onto, in part rebellion, and partly in the interest of continuing this relaxing float in the Aare, around Bern, through some Swiss lakes, to the Rhine, and a little tour of Germany, and out to the North Sea. I was thinking, then, in that split second, that that’d be true freedom, really, missing that pole.

On Friday, I took the train, again, this time to medieval Murten, and not establishing an instant connection with this small town, spontaneously, and with one minute to spare, I boarded the last boat of the day to Neuchâtel. This two hour picturesque voyage took me from Lake Murten, through the Broye Canal, to larger Lake Neuchâtel, and during the voyage I alternated sides on the deck of the boat to catch the farms on the port side, and then the hundreds of birds alighting on the tip tops of trees on the starboard side, their wings in silhouette as the sun set behind them. I ate my bread with gruyère and tomato and sipped the Fendent that I had brought on board, and from time to time the captain would warn me before he sounded the horn to signal a stop, and then sometimes when it was quiet, he’d turn around and ask me, “Ça va? C’est bien?” Oui, c’est bien.

Saturday, I pulled on my hiking gear and set out for the Swiss Alps and Grindelwald. From Grindelwald, I hiked for four and a half hours and 900 vertical meters to the foot of a glacier, which I just glimpsed, before it clouded over and began to rain. On the way up, I asked a local Swiss man if my planned route was a difficult one. Not at all, he said; it’s like this, and indicating the topography of the trail, fish-tailed his hand when he should have been roller coastering it. But, as I learned from my ex-husband, I saved my calves while hiking straight up by turning the path into veers to the right, and veers to the left, and then right again, and so on, and veering slowly about like this, I passed grazing cows, and alpine huts selling cheese made from those cows’ milk, and, sometimes, I’d stop to drink from pure, Alpine streams to slake my thirst. And I talked to myself on this trek. I talked out loud about appreciating the moment. About forgiveness. About trying to be easy on myself and others. And I sang (badly), and I even yoddled a little (worse).

And later in the day, I took the train to Lauterbrunnen where I walked under one of Europe’s largest waterfalls (and met the international jumpers who fly off the top of it), had a respectable Swiss fondue (though not as good as the fondue I ate in Gruyères), and at dusk, I peacefully rode the train back to Bern through the two lakes of lovely Interlaken. It was raining lightly, then, and there was just enough light to illuminate the mountains behind the train. I stood up, pulled the window down, and stuck my head out to catch the last glimpse of those gorgeous and imposing mountains, Alpine mist on my face.

I don’t like everything about Switzerland. But hiking this verdant landscape, and swimming in its pure lakes, and eating its fresh, mostly organic, sustainable foods, and riding its comfortable, reliable trains, are all delights that I now know I will continue to enjoy. Yes, it took a love affair to expose me to Switzerland’s charms, but this week showed me that I can make them mine now, and mine alone, and that, it turns out, may have more to do with bread than I thought.

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread Recipe

Note from Banu: My father makes this bread regularly, and now I know why. For my birthday, he generously sent me Jim Lahey’s book containing this simple no-knead bread recipe and a cast-iron pot in which to cook it, and ever since I’ve been experimenting with different permutations of the original recipe.

This is Mark Bittman’s New York Times adaptation of Jim Lahey’s bread recipe, but it is not that far from the original. I usually make a whole wheat loaf, and have determined that 2 cups whole wheat bread flour to 1 cup white bread flour is a pretty good ratio. I also like to add one to two handfuls each of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, for a heartier, healthier loaf. My loaves haven’t risen so much as the pictures in Lahey’s book, but the crust is incredible, and though, when sliced, is the shape of a biscotti, and not so great for sandwiches, in the morning with a little flax oil or slice of cheese? Heaven.

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery


Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting

¼ teaspoon instant yeast

1¼ teaspoons salt

Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 and 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

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