No More Loafin’ Around

Ya know that bread you get at restaurants that’s so good that you can’t stop eating it? You gorge yourself on it. You were hungry when you got there and you asked for some bread right away just to soothe the pangs.

The waiter brings the bread. It’s warm and fresh. Steam rises out of the basket. You pick up a slice, slather it with too much butter and take a bite. A little mound of butter slides off the side of the slice as if it were surfing down a melted golden wave that didn’t soak in fast enough.

Your eyes close and you sigh to yourself as the planet stops spinning and time stands still. All is silent in the world, and for a moment you are sensuously in touch with nothing but the deep, yeasty saveur — the crunch of the crust, the slight chew of the crumb, and the briny creaminess of the butter that’s sumptuously melting off of your bottom lip.

That’s what I did tonight for dinner, and I never left home! I finally achieved bread.

This was the best bread I’ve ever had in my life and I made it myself with nothing but all-purpose flour, water, salt, a tiny bit of yeast, and no kneading whatsoever. Unbelievable!

I made the dough last night before I went to bed. Must’ve been around midnight or so. I left it out on the counter at room temperature. When I looked at it again it was nearly 1:00 pm, 13 hours later. It was starting to look like bread! It had nearly doubled, but I wanted to make sure that it picked up every nuance of excellence that it could. After all, I’ve been working on this project for nearly two weeks.

About 4:30 this afternoon I pulled the soft, bubbly, living mass onto a flour drenched towel, shaped it into an elongated loaf, and let it sit for another two hours. It doubled again.

Following Jim Lahey’s directions I placed a heavy walled Dutch oven and lid in to the oven for 30 minutes at 450 degrees F. Once the pan was hot I carefully (but not gracefully) lobbed the flour covered loaf into it, placed the cover on, and shoved it in for 20 minutes.

The hot covered container serves a couple of purposes.

The secret to amazing crust is steam. Commercial bakeries that produce high quality European style breads often have ovens that automatically inject steam for the first half of the baking period. Without it you cannot develop good crust.

The enclosed blazing hot space of the Dutch oven holds in moisture from the dough and simulates the effect of the steam oven.

The bottom and sides of the Dutch oven are so hot that the dough doesn’t stick at all. The other incredible benefit of this process is that the searing hot surface duplicates the bottom of a brick oven for that old world taste and texture that is equally difficult to duplicate without the proper equipment. Plus, you get what some call “burnt” but quality bakers call “French sunshine” (you want this on this kind of bread).

The result of the whole process is a rustic looking loaf (maybe a little too rustic on this first attempt) with rich crackling crust, large chewy crumb with big holes, and a depth of flavor that cannot be described in words.

The best part — anybody that can operate a measuring spoon can make bread just like this.

We paired the bread with some awesome barbecued chicken, some perfectly cooked haricot vert in a light mustard and shallot sauce, and capped it off with a dish of Mom’s famous southern peach cobbler a la mode.

Daddy always said that, “Few black women and no white folks at all make peach pie like your mama.” He was right about that…and I suspect he would’ve approved equally of the bread.

An hour or so after the cobbler dissipated I went after a couple more slices with some honey! I can hardly wait ’til breakfast.

(Unkle Chef is making some home cured bacon with some kickin’ naturally raised pork belly from up the road a’piece. Check back next week for a collaborative BLT!)