This bread will change your life.
It started with an article in The New York Times, back in the fall of 2006. Mark Bittman had (and still has) a column entitled The Minimalist; what could be more minimalist than bread? Flour, water, some sort of leavening, salt, and time. And yet I never made bread; I don't have the patience, I hate kneading, and I hate messing about with yeasts and warm water and worrying whether the water was too hot or too cold, or if the bread would rise or not. Any bread-making experiment tended to leave every surface of the kitchen scattered with flour and a mountain of dirty bowls in the sink. I would run over to the rising dough (left on the dining-room heater; the radiators in our house were covered with wooden cases that made convenient benches and places to pile magazines and clothes) every ten minutes or so to see if anything was happening. Besides, artisanal bakeries were opening all over Seattle. Why make it at home when you could get a crusty loaf just about anywhere, even the supermarket?
Mark Bittman's recipe, adapted from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery, promised no-fail bread that produced a golden, crusty round loaf with a stupefyingly simple recipe that combined a very wet dough, a very long rise, and absolutely no kneading. It seemed easy enough. I had a Le Creuset french oven, which would work for baking the bread (the recipe calls for any cast-iron, enamel, ceramic, or Pyrex covered pot). But somehow I never got around to it. Other recipes appeared, in Vogue, in Cook's Illustrated. I started taking the idea of making bread seriously. But it was Nancy Leson, of The Seattle Times, who wrote about her version - the Cook's Illustrated version - and told her readers to go forth and bake this weekend. And this time, I did.
I went to the grocery store Saturday night after dinner, ticking things off my list, fruit, vegetables, bacon, sausages, juice, flour, yeast. Ice cream. I came home and began measuring flour into a bowl, water in a measuring jug. Whisked the flour together with yeast and salt, poured in the water, stirred it all with a spatula. It came together in a shaggy mass, just as the recipe said it would, and then gathered itself into wet ball of dough. I covered it with plastic wrap, set it in a warm corner near the water heater, and went to bed. In the morning it had started to bubble and spread out in the bottom of the bowl; when I came home in the afternoon (some eighteen hours after I had first mixed it together) it had swollen into a loose, bubbly mass. I turned it onto a floured wooden board and folded the wet dough over onto itself a couple of times, pulled it into a ball and somehow scraped it onto a towel. It was fun. The bread rose for a second time, dusted in flour and wheat bran, covered in a towel, this time on the warm windowsill for almost two hours. I preheated the pot in the oven, which alarmed me a little, since the plastic knob on the lid isn't supposed to withstand anything higher than 400º, and I had the oven cranked up to 450º. Never mind. I poured the dough into the heated pot and slashed a big X on the top, gingerly replaced the lid, and shoved the entire thing back into the oven.
The smell of baking bread, of toasted wheat bran and flour, filled my apartment. The timer went "ding," and I ran to check. It had formed a perfect round loaf, with a crisp, golden crust, and I put it back to bake without the lid until it had browned further. I let it cool for at least twenty minutes before I could stand it no longer and sliced the bread open. It was perfect - a thick crust, an airy, white interior with a light crumb. The bread was soft and warm and the crust crackled between my teeth; I ate one slice, then another, and then a third. It could have been higher; I could have used more salt, added whole-wheat flour. Next time it will be even better.