And not just any old bread but really good bread! I know, it's just all too exciting. My culinary life has been plagued by plenty of bread failures or just ho-hum loaves. And since I live in more or less a food paradise, where excellent artisan bread can be had at almost any grocery store, I figured the ideal loaf of bread was simply not worth pursuing.
But then a few months ago when Sophie was in the SF Opera's production of Macbeth, I got to know one of the other parents, Opera Dad, who insisted I try the New York Times no-knead bread recipe from Mark Bittman's Minimalist column. I've always figured if something is in Bittman's column, I can make it, but this was bread. However, Opera Dad said I had to try it. So I did. This is a no-knead recipe, with the effect from kneading accomplished by letting a very wet dough rise overnight. Really easy: throw the ingredients together before you go to bed, form loaf and let rise two more hours the next day, and then bake. Cooking in a preheated Dutch oven help produce the hard crust common to artisan breads. Here's the results:
Loaf 1. Not great. Turns out when the recipe says "instant yeast," one must use this (confusingly labeled "fast-acting yeast" in my neck of the woods) and only this. Much research on the internet revealed that this type of yeast is already activated and can be added to dry ingredients and not require warm water and some sort of "food" (say, sugar) to get it going. The regular yeast I used was not activated, and since the recipe does not include a step to accomplish this, the yeast didn't do it's job.
Loaf 2. Correct yeast purchased, I made another go of it. Better, but still sort of . . . flat. However, crust was great (shatters with the tap of a knife), and I always consider a good crust nine tenths the battle with homemade bread. Opera Dad then revealed that I should have used bread flour—more gluten, he says. But I wasn't convinced this would make enough difference to produce a notably better loaf. The inside texture was not great and the taste was a little bland.
BUT THEN Cook's Illustrated came out with their tweak of the Times recipe, Almost No-Knead Bread. The technique is similar, but this recipe produces a dough not quite as wet (and therefore easier to handle), they knead the dough a small amount, and they add beer to up the yeasty flavor that the previous recipe lacked. (The article suggests Budweiser, which I couldn't use because then I would have Budweiser in my house, and we just can't have that. I mean, what would we do with the five other bottles? Serve them to people? Drink them??? I used a microbrew pale ale.)
Loaf 3. Goddamn if it didn't work. Perfectly! Look at this:
We all ate a slice hot, buttered, and then I served it before dinner with brie and some marinated mushroom I put up in the fall.
Sure, it wasn't really any better than local artisan bread, but it was delicious to have a slice hot out of the oven, it made my house smell wonderful, and you just can't put a price on the sense of accomplishment it gave me. Success at last!