I love baking bread, but I must be the very last person to get around to the kind you barely knead, made with minimal yeast and baked in a cast-iron casserole. When my tennis friend Charlotte started raving about it recently, I raced back from our doubles to try it out. I reckon it must be the one pioneered by the Sullivan St Bakery and immortalised by the New York Times in 2006.
I know, I know, you’re asking “what took you so long?” Better late than never…I admit I have a problem with US measurements and it did take me a while to figure out what 1 5/8 cups of water might mean in some kind of volume I could actually get my head round. But 7 years??? Nah… (And thanks to a faithful American friend for the suggestion that it’s 5/8 of 250ml, which left me not much wiser.) In the end, of course, you don’t have to be incredibly precise with measurements in bread making (unlike cake baking). The key thing to aim for is a fairly soft dough – since you’re not going to turn it out and woman-handle it, it doesn’t matter if it’s on the soft side (because you won’t get sticky). And a slack dough will give a lovely, loose-textured bread with big holes through which butter can happily drip.
Here’s my version of the recipe, which worked for me. Try it and let me know how you get on. It’s kind of magic. And the bread’s pretty gorgeous too.
Makes 1 loaf about 30 x 20 cm diameter
550g flour (all white or a mix of white and wholewheat) – about 3 cups
2 teaspoons salt
optional: a handful of mixed seeds (sunflower, sesame, linseeds etc.)
1/2 a sachet of easyblend dry yeast or 10g fresh yeast
1 1/2 cups-and-then-a bit-more of warm water (ca. 380ml, if I’m being pedantic)
extra flour for dusting
- Put the flour(s), salt and seeds (if using) in a big mixing bowl
- If using dry yeast, stir it in too
- If using fresh yeast, mix it with the warm water and stir till dissolved
- Add water to the flour(s) and mix to a rough dough – logically, there’s no need to knead, just mix it enough so it comes together in to a ragged dough
- Encase the whole bowl in a large plastic bag and leave dough to rise for as long as it takes to climb up to the top of the bowl – the longer it takes, the better the flavour of the finished bread
- Drape a teatowel in a bowl or basket about 20 cm diameter by 10 cm deep, snuggle it well into the bottom and sprinkle the towel very lavishly with flour
- Scrape the dough out into the towel-lined bowl or basket and let rise again for about 20-30 minutes or until doubled in bulk
- Take a cast-iron casserole (e.g. Le Creuset or Staub from Alsace) – mine is oval, about 26 x 10 cm deep – and put it in the oven without its lid (no need to grease it)
- Heat the oven to 220C while the dough is busy with its second rise
- When the dough has risen, remove the (red-hot) casserole from the oven, set it on a heatproof surface and tip the dough into it, upside down
- Put the lid on, return the casserole to the oven and bake for 30 minutes
- Remove the lid (it will be beautifully risen and beginning to take colour) and bake the bread for another 10-15 minutes to brown the top
- Tip onto a wire rack to cool
- Eat with lashings of real butter, reserving the crust for people who really understand the wonder of such things