Jim Lahey is a genius. What? You don’t know who he is? You should. The man has single handedly revolutionized home bread baking with a ground breaking no-knead method. Yes, I know this no-knead bread thing has been around for a few years and is all over the internet with 8 million bloggers posting photos of their picture perfect loaves. Mark Bittman made it a sensation when he published his New York Times article in 2006. People have been oohing and aahing the standard boule baked in a Dutch oven ever since. For a ridiculously simple dough, it is a beauty. But there are other loaves, more interesting loaves, in my opinion than just this one.
How it works is simple: in a large bowl mix, flour, water salt and a surprisingly small amount of yeast together. Cover and let rise for a long time – 12-18 hours. That’s it. No heavy duty mixing or kneading. No special equipment for the most part. No sore hands or carpal tunnel flare ups. You just stir it together and let time take over.
In his article, Mark Bittman asked food scientist Harold McGee what the deal was. His response: “It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.”
Well, alright. Making a decent loaf of bread, with good crust and great crumb has alluded me. My bread was … OK at best and great on occasion but the results were inconsistent. What if I didn’t have to do anything other than stir? It sounded too good to be true. So a few years ago, I tried the recipe in that article. Me and everyone else. It was fantastic – simple and delicious. And stunningly gorgeous. It came out of the oven crackling, chatting me up. I may have even snapped a few pictures, I was so enamored.
Then about a year ago, I ordered a copy of Lahey’s new book – My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method. If he’s the one that pioneered this no-knead method, then I wanted to see what he had to say. I also wanted to try my hand at more than the classic boule.
It has become one of my favorite books, pushing aside my many more traditional baking volumes. I have to tell you, this method is ridiculously easy and produces fantastic bread every time. I’ve made several things from this book, tweaking a few recipes here and there and everything, every single thing, has amazed me.
But from the beginning, as I was flipping through the pages, one photo kept bringing me back. Strecca. The Sticks. Long thin, flat loaves with garlic, olives or cherry tomatoes pushed in. They looked fantastic. They spoke to me.
So on a slow night, I mixed up the dough. That took all of 3 minutes, most of which was spent tracking down my yeast. Then I covered it and settled the bowl in a nice, toasty spot for a long slow rise – about 14 hours. I slept through half of it. Another quick rise – 1-2 hours – and then it was time to shape. Here’s how complicated this was. I cut the dough in half and stretched each piece into a long strip by pretty much letting the weight of the dough do the shaping. Whew. Exhausting.
Into an oiled pan with garlic cloves pressed into one, olives in the other then brushed with olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and a bit of ground pepper and thyme. You could skip the olives and garlic and leave them plain if you like, but why? Into a 500°F oven, on top of a preheated pizza stone (I never move the thing) for 15 minutes. Voila.
I cut off a piece – there was a great crust and a beautiful hole-y crumb. The garlic surprising cooked up soft and nutty in those 15 minutes and the olives were nice and briny. The bit of salt on the crust was my favorite part, but then it always is. It was delicious, so I cut off another piece. Brought to mind a really good ciabatta – chewy and crunchy at the same time. And utterly addictive. I sliced off another piece. And another. Next thing I knew, the damn thing was gone. It hadn’t even fully cooled yet. Then I eyeballed the other one. Yeah, it was that good.
These loaves don’t hold well – there’s no preservatives or fat to keep them moist – so eat up. I made a ½ recipe (or two sticks) because, well, it’s just me around here. A good thing too because I demolished those two sticks in a matter of hours. Alone. Yeah, I did and it’s a good thing there weren’t two more waiting in the wings.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: MAMA MIA! I’m still a little baffled at how little effort goes into something so fantastic. Why aren’t we all doing this, every day? Explain that to me, would you? Banish that grocery store garbage forever. The thought of one of those spongy, flavorless “Italian” loaves at Jewel has me cringing right now. My bread can kick your breads butt. I have visions of slicing one horizontally and making one amazing sandwich. Of course, I’d have to make more because my two are suspiciously gone, but that’s no problem whatsoever. The only thing that might create a wrinkle, and it’s an easy one to overcome, is time. It really really needs that long slow rise. But it takes no time to whip together – mere minutes – so do it before you go to bed and you’ll have beautiful bread for dinner the next night. So yeah, why aren’t you doing this?
STRECCA DI NONNA from Jim Lahey’s “My Bread”
Makes 4 thin sticks or loaves
for the dough:
3 cups bread flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups cool water
olive oil for brushing
sea salt for sprinkiling
optional: 10 pieces pitted olives, garlic cloves or cherry tomato halves
freshly ground pepper
fresh thyme leaves
- Make the dough: In a medium bowl, stir together the water and yeast until dissolved.
- Add the flour, salt and sugar and stir until combined with a spatula, wooden spoon or your hand until a sticky dough is formed and everything is well combined, about 30 seconds. Do not knead.
- First rise: Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until the dough has doubled in size and is covered with bubbles – about 12-18 hours.
- Initial shaping: Dust a work surface with flour and scrape the dough from the bowl in one piece.
- Fold the dough over itself 2-3 times and gently shape it into a flattened ball.
- Brush the surface of the dough lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon sea salt.
- Generously flour a tea towel and gently place the dough round on the towel, oil side up.
- Dust the top of the dough lightly with flour and gently fold the towel over the dough.
- Second rise: Let rise for 1-2 hours. The dough is ready when it is nearly doubled in size and if you gently poke the dough, it holds the impression. If it springs back, let rise for another 15 minutes.
- 30 minutes before the rise is complete, preheat the oven to 500°F with a pizza stone (if you have one) in the lowest position.
- Oil a 13” x 18” sheet pan with olive oil and set aside.
- Final shaping: Cut the dough into quarters and gently stretch each piece evenly into a stick, approximately the length of the pan. Let the weight of the dough do most of the work.
- Place on the pan, leaving 1” between the sticks.
- If you like, push your choice of – 10 cherry tomato halves (cut side up), 10 peeled garlic cloves or 10 pitted olives – evenly into the length of the dough.
- Brush each loaf with enough olive oil to create a thin coat of oil on the surface of the dough.
- Sprinkle each with sea salt, a few grinds of ground pepper and if you like, some fresh thyme leaves.
- Bake: bake for 15 minutes until golden brown.
- Cool in the pan for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.