Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Crusty nirvana

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, especially when the weather is cooler and invites warm, savory comfort food (braises, soups, stews, etc.) that pairs well with wine. I've dabbled with bread on and off, with mixed results, but for the last couple years I've been content to buy crusty bread when I had a hankering for it. But a few weeks ago, Mark Bittman's Minimalist column in the NYT offered a simple recipe for satisfying bread with no kneading, relying on a long, slow rise to develop gluten and baking partially inside a heavy pot to produce a hearty crust.

In the last few weeks, I've made maybe a half a dozen loaves of the stuff, and I love it: dense, chewy, with big irregular holes inside and a crisp, thick crust. Today, Bittman's column has some ideas for further refinements, additions, and substitutions. I'm anxious to try a rye version (up to 20% rye flour, plus caraway seeds) and maybe a baguette shape, if I can figure out what to put it in.

Bittman reports that he prefers to bake in a smaller cast iron pot, maybe 3 or 4 quarts. I started out using an old Magnalite aluminum dutch oven of about that size, but have since decided I prefer to use my big (8-qt?) Calphalon soup pot. I found that in the smaller pot, the bread wouldn't develop much color at all until I took the cover off, and by the time it was finished it wasn't yet that beautiful dark mahogany that I associate with great artisanal bread (I've got a picture of my first loaf, which I'll post when Blogger cooperates). With the bigger pot, the larger volume decreases the concentration of steam that the bread is exposed to for the first half hour.

My favorite thing about the bread is that it's just as good toasted a few days after baking as it was right out of the oven.

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