Saturday, July 07, 2007

Kneadless Pain

Had I known bread could be this easy to make, I would have started a lot sooner. I first read about the miracle that is kneadless bread in The New York Times when Mark Bittman, better known as the Minimalist, extolled its virtues. But it wasn't until Jeffrey Steingarten waxed yet more lyrical about this loaf that I decided to give it a shot.

The entire process involves less than 15 minutes of work (or more like pottering about, if you ask me) spread over 20 hours or so. More a question of shrewd timing than technique, this wonderful loaf is like a cross between a soft country loaf and sourdough. Apparently experimenting with various types of flour will yield different results (read more about it if you can get your hands on a copy of the May issue of American Vogue). I've only tried the basic recipe using Waitrose Bread Flour and I've also found that you need a standard sized oven to do this successfully. In my smaller, standalone oven, the loaf tends to start burning slightly before the baking time is up.

This recipe was adapted from Jeffrey Steingarten's amazing article in American Vogue.

3 cups bread flour, and more for dusting
2 tsp fine salt
1 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
1/2 cup coarse wheat bran*

- A heavy casserole dish, preferably enamelled cast iron. You could also use a good glass casserole dish.
- 1 coarse dish towel

1. Combine the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl.
2. Pour in the water and with your fingers or a spoon, mix for about 30 seconds until a rough wet dough forms and all the flour has been absorbed.
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at room temperature for about 18 hours. (You can leave it for longer or shorter, up to just 8 hours. The longer the rise, the better the texture of the bread. But past 24 hours, the dough will begin to collapse, which is not what you want).
4. Heavily flour your work surface. Invert the bowl over the surface. It will spread like a formless blob.
5. Dust the dough with flour and stretch it into a rough square, about 25cm per side.
6. Fold the square into thirds to make a puffy strip about 10 cm wide and 25 cm long.
7. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes
8. Meanwhile, spread the dish towel on a flat surface. Rub a generous amount of flour into one half of the towel, and sprinkle a few tablespoons of bran over the flour. This prevents the dough from sticking to the towel.
9. Fold the dough in thirds again, beginning at one of the short ends of the strip. You should have a dough that’s shaped like a rough cube.
10. Gently lift the dough with both hands onto the floured half of the dish cloth that you prepared earlier.
11. Sprinkle the top of the dough with a little flour and bran. Cover with the other half of the towel or with plastic wrap. Let rise for 2 hours.
12. When an hour has passed, place your casserole and its cover in the oven. Set the temperature to its highest setting, probably about 220 degrees to 240 degrees.
13. When another hour has passed, open the oven and remove the casserole cover. Bring the loaf to the casserole and up-end it into the casserole. Shake the casserole sideways if the loaf needs to be neatened.
14. Cover the casserole and bake for 30 minutes.
15. Uncover the casserole and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes until the loaf is a lovely golden to dark brown. Remove and let it cool on a rack until barely warm to the touch.
16. This bread is best eaten when it has almost cooled completely.

*Wheat bran or bran flakes can be purchased at organic or health food stores like Nature’s Farm.