I imagine many people's weekends were spent like mine - with a bowl of flour, instant yeast and water fermenting in a warm corner of the kitchen as they went about their business, courtesy of Jim Lahey and that kitchen imp, Mark Bittman.
Yes, you all know how I feel about the Minimalist. I usually downright ignore his column when Wednesdays roll around. But this time, I simply could not. I've spent too many Saturdays lingering around Sullivan Street Bakery, gnawing on a slice of the best pizza bianca to be found in New York or walking back home with a crinkly bag of filone to ignore Jim Lahey's spectacular recipe for bread that is the easiest I've ever tried, with among the best results.
Yes! A fantastic recipe! Something to rave about! Finally. What a relief. If you all aren't running home to buy instant yeast (not that stuff that comes in little packets, that's not instant) and throw together your loaf of supremely gratifying, holey, tasty bread, well, then I can't help you either. Do it! You'll be so happy you did. And then you can laminate this recipe and add it to the hall of fame.
It's so easy - you mix together some instant yeast, flour (I used a mix of bread flour and AP flour, half and half) salt and some water to form a "shaggy" dough. You cover this tightly and let it sit undisturbed for 12 to 18 hours. Then you sort of manhandle the dough around for a bit, let it rise a little longer while you preheat an oven and a cast-iron pot (I used a round one, but next time might try the smaller oval pot), and thendump your wobbly dough into the hot pot and let it bake in the oven (first covered, then uncovered) until you have a golden, hollow-when-thumped, crackling loaf of bread (it crackles! As it cools!).
You have to let it cool before slicing, but when you do, beware. A taste of those slices of bread - plain, spread with honey, whatever - will make the people around you become singularly fixated and before you know it the entire loaf will be gone. Gone! It's okay. You can make another loaf and barely even dirty your hands. Go! Bake! NOW!
Yields one 1 1/2 pound loaf
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.
1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.