It’s officially October, which means it’s time for the annual Unprocessed October Challenge. Coming off the wanton abandonment that is the summer months, full of travels and adventures and an appetite to match, my eating habits need some firm redirection. It’s little things that creep up on me, mainly due to sheer exhaustion and a whole lot of laziness. The irony of being a professional cook is that what you do all day for other people leaves you little energy and interest in doing it for yourself. Take out, delivery, drive thrus and shortcuts become the bane of our existence. Because shortcuts are easier and that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? A multi-billion dollar food industry is built upon that very premise. So I take this month to get things back on track, especially before the holidays hit and things go off the rails again.
The challenge rules are simple – avoid processed food for 31 days (you can read up on the whole deal here). So how do you define processed food? The simplest way to think about this is if you can’t make it in your own kitchen, you don’t eat it. Look at the ingredient label; if you don’t understand it, you don’t eat it. This covers most convenience foods – fast, prepared, frozen. An honest conversation needs to take place. Some real hard admissions that blue food is not truly found in nature (adios cool blue Gatorade) and cellulose is derived from wood pulp so you probably don’t want to eat it (bye shredded cheese). Live and die by those labels and become more aware of what’s in the common foods you purchase. It can be a little alarming. Even something seemingly simple, say a daily staple like bread, can contain ingredients that read like a foreign language or a scientific report. Whole, fresh foods are the name of the game this month.
But that bread has always struck me as an odd one. Bread molds, it goes stale. That’s what it does yet I’ve had supermarket loaves last well over a week. That’s a little terrifying and we have to change up the way we think about these things. In France, for example, buying bread is a daily or at least an every-other-day occurrence. One buys enough to get through the day and that’s it. As a single gal, you can even buy a demi or half baguette (though it frequently comes with a pitying look for your singledom, but whatever. No stale bread for this girl!) The next day, you buy another. That’s how its been done forever and why lovely things like pain perdu and bread pudding exist to utilize that stale bread. Circle of life, even in the bakery world.
So what if we got back to that way of thinking, and changed the expectations that a loaf of bread should not last days or weeks? Why not make our own bread, with those same basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, yeast? You know why? Because people in this country cannot fathom making bread. Think about it. We all probably know one or two people who make excellent bread, but more than that who do it on a regular basis? I know plenty of fantastic home cooks who would think nothing of taking on multi-day complicated cooking projects but the idea of a yeast bread sends them running. They say it’s intimidating; yeast is scary. If they only knew how easy it could be.
So why not give it a shot, baking your own daily loaf? There are many directions to go, but if you’re new to bread baking, or even a seasoned pro, there is no easier place to start then the no-knead method. It’s a revelation. All you need is some basic ingredients and a heavy, lidded pot. Developed by baker Jim Lahey and made popular by Mark Bittman in a rather famous NY Times article five years ago, it involves simply mixing flour, water, salt and a small amount of yeast into a wet, sticky dough and letting it sit for 12-18 hours. That’s it. No heavy mixing, no aggressive kneading.
The next day, after a little rise, you turn this loose sticky dough into a very hot heavy pot and bake it at a fairly high heat for about an hour. What emerges is a most impressive loaf – beautiful burnished crust, an interior crumb structure dotted with holes and an incredible chew. It never fails to amaze me.
The dough is incredibly forgiving. Not ready to bake? Put the dough in the fridge to slow down that yeast and buy some time. Mastered the basic loaf and yearn for something a little more interesting? Add some herbs or things like olives or roasted peppers. Plan a bit ahead by making the dough in the morning and you can have freshly baked bread for dinner. It is heads and shoulders above what you’ll find in any grocery store. Plus, you made it yourself.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: FANTASTIC. Baking a beautiful loaf of bread is one of cooking’s greatest pleasures. This method turns out consistently great results with seriously, very little effort. But no one needs to no that. No one at all. Don’t share all the secrets. And be sure to join in on the Unprocessed October Challenge! It’s only 31 days (well, 30 if you start today) and it’s interesting to learn how much you might rely on convenience foods. Really, it’s not that hard.
six years ago: Apple Pear Crisp
five years ago: Blueberry Raspberry Cobbler
four years ago: Unprocessed October (2011)
three years ago: Unprocessed October (2012)
two years ago: Unprocessed October (2013)
last year: Unprocessed October (2014)
EASY NO KNEAD OLIVE BREAD – method adapted from this recipe
Makes one loaf
Olives are salty so I’ve left out the ½ teaspoon of kosher salt I would usually work into the basic dough.
¾ teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups cool water (55°F-65°)
1 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary leaves
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup roughly chopped pitted kalamata olives
additional flour for dusting
equipment: a heavy 4 ½ – 5 ½ quart lidded pot
- In a medium bowl, combine the yeast and water.
- Stir in the flour, olives and rosemary until well combined and you have a wet, sticky dough.
- Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12-18 hours.
- Cut a large square of parchment paper (roughly 16” x 16”) and set aside on a sheet pan or cutting board.
- When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour.
- Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece.
- Using lightly floured hands, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center to create a nice tight round.
- Flip the dough seam sides down onto the floured parchment square. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round. Lightly dust the top with flour.
- Cover the dough loosely with a tea towel and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1-2 hours until almost doubled.
- Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475°F, with a rack in the lower third, and place a covered 4 ½ – 5 ½ quart heavy pot in the center of the rack. Note: if your pot lid has a plastic knob, remove before heating, put it somewhere safe and carefully plug the hole with a piece of aluminum foil.
- When the dough is ready, remove the towel and with a sharp knife, cut a slash in the top of the dough about 1/8” deep.
- After 30 minutes, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and set the cover aside.
- Gently transfer the dough into the preheated pot using the parchment paper to lift and transfer– try to avoid dropping/plunking the dough but be careful as the pot will be very hot.
- Cover the pot, return to the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color, 15-30 minutes more.
- Gently lift the bread out of the pot and place on a rack to cool thoroughly. It will be difficult but try to let the loaf cool fully before cutting.