I'm sure many of you foodies have made or eaten this bread by now. It originated with Jim Lahey of the Sullivan St. Bakery in New York City, and its fame spread exponentially when Mark Bittman wrote about it in the New York Times. So much so that the weekend after the recipe was printed, food blogs reported that stores in the city were sold out of yeast.
Is all the fuss worth it? Well, if you've eaten it, you already know the answer. If you haven't tried it, or made it yet, get thee to a grocery store. Quickly. Right Now. Before the stores close for the day or run out of yeast. Well, alright, read this post first.
Fresh out of the oven and placed on a board, this bread speaks to you - literally. It starts to make a crackling sound that augurs all the goodness in the eating ahead - a crust so crunchy and an interior so chewy and full of texture you'd swear it was baked by a real Italian baker in a brick oven.
My husband, whose father was a real Italian baker with a brick oven (and who later migrated to the U.S. and started his business all over again) swears this is almost as good as the bread he used to eat growing up. His cousins in Italy still maintain the bakery in a small village in Abruzzo. Having been there many times, I can say that the family's bread (and pizza) is fantastic and special for different reasons, not the least of which is the nostalgia quotient.
But in the U.S., Lahey's bread is the best substitute. It will spoil you against ever eating ordinary bread from a supermarket bakery again. Make this bread and you will have instant friends. Make this bread and you may even get a marriage proposal. It's that good.
I have altered the original recipe to include more salt, since I thought Lahey's version was a little bland in flavor. I always use King Arthur bread flour. The first time I made it, I used ordinary flour, and it wasn't as good. Below are the ingredients for one loaf. After having made this recipe countless times, I now double the recipe and make two loaves at the same time, using two pots. The secret, as you'll read, is in the technique. You need a good sturdy pot with a lid that can go into the oven, like a Le Creuset dutch oven pot. It doesn't have to be cast iron or enameled cast-iron though. Even a heavy steel or aluminum pot will do. When I make it, I use one small, enameled cast-iron pot (in the photo) and one heavy aluminum pot that's much larger and more squat. As a result, I get one small loaf that has a rounder shape, and one large loaf that is more spread out in size.
Enough explanation, here's the recipe:
3 cups flour
1/4 tsp. instant yeast (yes, that's right only 1/4 tsp.)
2 tsp. salt
1 5/8 cups water, or more as needed
cornmeal, as needed
1. In a large bowl, place the flour, yeast, and salt. Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon. It may need more water, depending on the humidity in the air that day. When I first made this recipe, I followed the recipe and used ordinary flour and the dough was very loose and impossible to work with - kind of shaggy. Now that I use bread flour, it is always a stiffer dough, and I find I have to add more water than the 1 5/8 cups. I add just enough water to make a dough that looks like it wouldn't hold together into a ball if made outside the bowl, but not so loose that it looks like a batter. Each time you make it, you'll get a better feel for what it should look like. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap
2. Go and solve the world's problems (or play scrabble or go to sleep) while you let this rise a minimum of 12 hours to a maximum of 18-20 hours. After that time, remove the plastic wrap, and the dough should look like it's dotted with little bubbles. Flour your hands as well as your work surface, and turn the dough onto the board, folding it over on itself. Let it rest for about 15 minutes.
3.Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to your work surface or fingers, shape it into a ball shape and place it on half of a linen or cotton towel (not terrycloth) that has been sprinkled with cornmeal. You can use flour if you like instead. Sprinkle the top with more cornmeal or flour and cover with the other half of the towel. Let it rise another two hours.
4. Before the two hours are up, heat your oven to 450 degrees and place your pot or dutch oven inside. Let it heat with the lid on, for 1/2 hour. Carefully remove the pot from the oven, and remove the lid. Slide your hand under the dishtowel and pick up the dough, letting any extra cornmeal fall into the sink or onto the counter top. Turn the dough upside down into the pot. Don't worry if it's not centered or looks a mess, or seems to have deflated. When it's fully cooked, it seems as if magic has taken place inside the pot and you will have bread that looks professionally baked.
5. Put the lid back on the pot and cook for 1/2 hour. After that time, remove the lid and bake for another 1/2 hour.
6. Remove from the oven. At this point, an intoxicating smell will have permeated your house and it will be hard to resist cutting into the bread. Try. Try hard. The sound of the crackling of the crust will begin while it's resting and continue for five minutes or so. It's also much easier to cut after it's cooled a bit. Cut into the bread while it's warm, savor the goodness and graciously accept the kudos from all your friends and family. And ponder that marriage proposal.
This is some of the bread in my husband's cousin's bakery in Scerni, Italy (region of Abruzzo). Not round, but just as wonderful.