Book redeems oft-failed chef

By - Nov 1st, 2009 12:01 am
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The critics are right; using Jim Lahey's bread recipe, even a novice can turn out an artisan loaf, with minimal effort.

The critics are right; using Jim Lahey’s recipe, a novice can bake an artisan loaf, with minimal effort. Photos by Liz Setterfield

“I think bread is magical. Unfortunately, bread hates me. It senses fear in me — and tends to misbehave. Or it used to. Jim Lahey’s “My Bread” expands on his no-knead, bread-in-a-pot method, a revolutionary development that allows even once-hopeless bakers like me to produce wonderful loaves of thick-crusted goodness. Jim is to bread what the Dalai Lama is to Buddhism.”

So reads Anthony Bourdain’s review of “My Bread” by Jim Lahey, published by Norton.

Bourdain takes the very words out of my mouth, which is no mean feat considering my mouth, these days, is stuffed full of freshly baked, artisan bread.

I am a dreadful cook, a terrible baker, a mis-manager of time in the kitchen, and a burner of boiled eggs. I have a small handful of dishes that I can prepare well, but it’s one handful, not two. What’s more, I believe the true reason for my vegetarianism is that I can avoid undercooking meat and thus poisoning my family.

So if there’s one thing I never even bothered to attempt – it’s the baking of bread.

But times are lean and mean, and a good loaf of bread costs upward of $5. My husband, frustrated by the price tag on our favorite artisan loaf, declared last spring that he was going to bake our own bread. Sustainable! Independent! Healthy! Organic! Delicious!

Out came the bread-maker. Out came the yeast, the flour and the timer. In went the dough, and out came a doorstop in the shape of a loaf of bread. Seriously, it may not have cost us $5, but it certainly must have weighed 5 pounds.

So we gave up.

Then one day at work, this marvelously photographed book crossed my desk. And Anthony Bourdain’s review with it. I was curious.

"My Bread" by Jim Lahey retails for $29.95 and is available at Outpost.

“My Bread” by Jim Lahey retails for $29.95 and is available at Outpost.

Who is this Jim Lahey? And what is this no-knead, in-a-pot method that turns once-hopeless bakers into gods?

Jim Lahey, it turns out, is the owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, where he bakes delicious loaves from recipes learned from bakers in northeastern and central Italy; a region he visited before opening his shop in 1994. And he wrote this book. And Martha Stewart loved it. Which means I have at least one thing in common with Martha Stewart.

I should get to the point. The point is that Mr. Lahey’s recipes are inspired by the art of Italian bread making, but with this in-a-pot method, anyone can actually pull them off … with aplomb! Yes – without a fancy breadmaker or expensive mixes, you can bake an artisan loaf that will impress people and make them love you.

I enlisted my husband and together, we tried the basic recipe outlined in the book to see if we could turn out a decent loaf. I photographed the process and the results, and I promise you the photographs document our first attempt. I also promise you we ate every last crumb.

The basics

The first thing we had to do was buy a five-quart cast iron Dutch oven. We found one at Target for $30. Then we popped down to Outpost to buy the ingredients. Quite simply: flour, salt, yeast, water, and wheat bran or cornmeal for dusting. We were bold and dusted with both.

The grand total cost per loaf (not including the pot) is less than $2.

Getting started

I am beyond smug and joyful over how easy this part was. You see, all we had to do was measure some flour and put it in a bowl. Then we added a bit of yeast, salt and some water. Then my husband stirred it up a bit. We covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and went to bed.

A hiccup

When the requisite 12 hours had passed, we expected to see our bread dough risen and bubbly. But it resembled a pancake. Refusing to despair or submit to self-loathing, we merely turned the thermostat up. Nudged to 72 degrees for a few hours, our ancient house became a desirable residence for dough, which soon began to rise and bubble, just as Mr. Lahey promised it would.

Stage Two

After the dough has risen, you pull it out of the bowl and dust it, then wrap it in a cloth napkin. You then leave it to complete its “second rise” in a warm spot.

Going potty

The next stage is to transfer your dough to your nicely preheated cast iron pot, which you will then pop into your nicely preheated oven. And bake it. Couldn’t be easier.

The glory

This is the best part. This is where you pull your pot out of the oven and savor the sight of one beautiful, deep golden boule that was made by you and your husband.

So run, don’t walk, to Outpost to get your copy of Lahey’s book. It retails for $29.95 and is worth every penny.

Visit Mr. Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery website.

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0 thoughts on “Book redeems oft-failed chef”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been making this bread since it appeared on Serious Eats (although it was from Charlie Burke’s blog) and it couldn’t be easier, nor have better results. It’s perfect “European-style” bread and it only calls for 1/4 teaspoon (yes, that’s right) of yeast.

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