For Christmas, my loving husband got me “My Bread” by Jim Lahey. For those of you who don’t slavishly follow all the latest culinary trends, Mr. Lahey “invented” (rediscovered?) a method of making bread that’s swept the foodie world. It requires a long, slow rise, lots of water, a wee pinch of yeast, and baking inside a pre-heated cast-iron dutch oven. It creates a bread with a really lovely deep brown and crackling crisp crust, and a big webby interior.
Then Mark Bittman, the Minimalist columnist from The New York Times, discovered him and the food world went mad, mad, mad I say!
I’ve tried this particular method a couple of times, but always using the Cook’s Illustrated method, which involves a wee bit of kneading and beer, to oomph up the somewhat lackluster taste (according to their testers). So last night, I decided to try a batch following Mr. Lahey’s directions.
Now, I’ll include some photos but please know that, as a photographer, I’m a great cook. So bear with the less-than-food-porn shots, please.
The recipe is simple enough 2 1/4 c. of bread flour, 3/4 of whole wheat flour, 1 1/4 salt, 1/2 t yeast, 1 1/3 c. cool water. Now, normally I do this sort of thing by weight, but I got a new scale for Christmas, too, and haven’t quite read the directions yet.
Which is too bad, really, since I seem to have had way way too much flour for the water. Instead of making the loose, sticky dough in the pictures of the book, I had a clump of rock-hard dough with lots of dry flour around it. I splashed in some more water, mixed, and set it to rise.
But wait! Mr. Lahey says to let it rise at room temp., or 72 degrees. It’s January in New England! My kitchen ain’t no 72 degrees! I waffled and then went to bed without turning the heat down. Made the cat happy, at least.
Maybe I shouldn’t have, however. When I woke up, the dough we risen almost double already and I still had at least three hours to go until the 12 hour minimum was up. I lifted the plastic to let the bubble of CO2 out and prayed I didn’t overproof. Then, at 11 hours, with the kitchen smelling slightly boozey, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. The dough was very wet and sticky and I couldn’t quite manage to tuck it into the neat ball that Mr. Lahey did in his book. But I put it in a dutch oven with some parchment paper for the second rise. (The paper is not per instructions — Mr. Lahey suggests the much more picturesque linen tea towel. But I decided that parchment paper could go in the oven! That would make transferring it to the preheated dutch oven much much easier. Practical trumps pretty in my kitchen every day.)
I preheated my (other) cast iron dutch oven, baked for the required amount of time and got… a pretty good loaf. The crust wasn’t the shatteringly crisp crust I’ve had with the Cook’s Illustrated recipe — possibly because I pulled the loaf too soon. Cook’s tells me to use a Thermapen and pull it at 210. I like that much better than Mr. Lahey’s “chestnut but not burnt” directions, expeically since about half the pictures in the book look a little burnt to me. And the interior was a bit dull… I’ll keep adding the beer.
The recipes are all, of necessity, very repetitious. It’s a method book, so the method doesn’t vary. He could have saved himself some pages by just making ingredient lists, though I can see why he didn’t. It’s a slim little volume as it is. But I’m dying to try the coconut chocolate bread and I am grateful to him for suggesting how to make long, skinny loaves. Though I was amused by his casual name dropping of the “familiar” Romertopf French Bread Baker. I don’t think I know anyone who owns one of those and I know some hard-core foodies.
The idea of using salt water from the ocean to cook with (from the Jones Beach Bread recipe) is both twee and intriguing. Which might be an excellent description of this whole book.
The pictures really are lovely. The kind of food porn that you buy hard-back cookbooks for. Very spare and rustic, with that artful dash of scattered flour to make it look casual. Much much better than my half-assed snapshots here. I thought about trying to recreate some shots to make into framed pictures for my kitchen.
The introduction is a long-winded paean to how cool Mr. Lahey is and how his wonderful life and wonderful self has created this wonderful method. Maybe I’m just not in the right mental place to read it — I’ve heard other say that they found it inspiring. But it seemed excessively self aggrandizing and loooooong.