A simple loaf
March 31, 2015
Last weekend, I attended a Methodist church event at a retreat center in the Ozarks. It had caught my eye because of its title, “Food for the Heart and Soul,” and its explanation that it would be (a) led by, among others, a professionally trained chef, an (b) would focus on the preparing of food and the actual eating of a meal as a spiritual practice.
Having been on something of a journey of spiritual exploration for the past year or so, and given my love of cooking, and just generally needing a good break, I signed up.
It was an excellent weekend. I learned a lot, including a fascinating presentation from a herbalist, one of the last of the traditional Ozark “granny women”; some wonderful food; some new understanding. I enjoyed some marvelous food, and came home with some excellent recipes, one of which I’ve made in the two days since I’ve been back.
It’s a simple loaf of bread. Four ingredients — flour, water, salt, yeast. I love to bake bread, and I love to add all kinds of things to enhance the flavor. But this bread, these four simple ingredients, lends itself so marvelously to so many different applications, and the finished product is so far beyond the sum of those four simple ingredients. It doesn’t require a mixer — I stirred it up in my big mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. It doesn’t take a lot of kneading — I kneaded it maybe a dozen turns after its first rise, when I turned it out to shape into a loaf. It’s just time, and the magic of the yeast, and it’s wonderful.
The recipe is from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, and it’s the recipe for their master loaf. And here it is:
- 6 1/2 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon yeast
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 3 cups warm water
And that’s it. I put my yeast into my water and added part of the flour and stirred it up, then added the rest of the flour and the salt because I get all anxious about my salt and my yeast getting in too close proximity too soon, as the salt will allegedly kill the yeast action, but their directions say to just mix it all up together. Once it’s mixed — it’ll be a thick batter, a very soft dough that wouldn’t be easily kneadable — cover it with plastic wrap and set it aside for two hours or so.
At the end of that two hours, put it in the refrigerator, still covered, for at least another two, and up to four or five days. When it’s well-chilled, dig out the amount you want with a spatula (this recipe makes two sizeable 8 x 3 1/2 loaves) onto a floured board or counter, knead it a half-dozen or so turns, form it into the shape you want to bake it, and set it aside to rise for at least another 90 minutes.
It’s like magic. The two long rises give the yeast time to develop a great earthy flavor. The crumb is medium texture, and the mouth feel is chewy and satisfying.
This is a wonderful loaf. It’s sturdier than my standby, Miss Mary Lloyd’s bread, in loaf form, though I’ll still go with that version for dinner rolls. This is sturdy enough to stand up to a good sandwich. I could have created some steam in the oven and developed a crustier loaf, but I am not a huge fan of a crunchy crust, anyway.
We had it at the retreat in boule-shaped loaves and baguettes. I made mine yesterday in a regular loaf pan. And one evening at the retreat center, we made it into a fougasse, of which I had never heard, but it’s kinda like a foccacia minus the dimples on top. After the first rise, you turn it out onto an oiled sheet pan and pat it out as if it were a pizza crust, then brush the top with olive oil and add whatever toppings you wish; we put sea salt and chopped Kalamata olives. It would be good with cheese, or herbs, or about anything else you can name.
I’ll have to read the book to be sure — it’s on order from Amazon — but I expect you could sub some rye for a cup or so of the A/P flour and add some caraway and have a good rye bread, and it would probably easily accommodate add-ins like flax or chia seeds and other flavorings. I have half my recipe left in the fridge, and I’m busy contemplating what I’ll do with it. I have some really good Spanish chorizo in the fridge….that with some cheese?
A little yeast, and a lot of time, and a magical transformation of simple ingredients. I guess that’s a pretty good spiritual revelation in and of itself. You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em get your flour, water, salt and yeast out, and try your own.