It must be the most famous recipe I’ve ever encountered. Everywhere I’ve traveled in the past year — London, New York, Washington, D.C. — home cooks I know have heard about it and several have tried it. My friend Ann and I made four loaves in four days while I was visiting her in London at the end of March. Since then, I make the bread about once a week. It’s the sort of food that you make for yourself the way you like it. So, the following adaptation may not appeal to everyone.
After making the bread numerous times, I bought a copy of Peter Reinhardt’s Crumb & Crust. The process of making bread the laborious way involving kneading was enjoyable, but I had problems getting the same rise as I did with the Mark Bittman NYT recipe. My solution was to combine the two recipes and adjust the cooking times. Now, the bread turns out consistently good and flavorful.
Here’s the original recipe as it appeared in the NYTs:
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp 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 mins.
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 mins, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 mins, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Here’s how I now make it:
3 cups bread flour
1 scant T kosher salt
1/4 tsp rapid-rise yeast
1/2 tsp malt barley powder
Combine all the dry ingredients in a food processor. Pulse three or four times. Fill a two cup measuring cup with water and have another 3/8s cup of water at hand. With the machine running, pour in 2 cups water. Watch as the flour begins to form a ball. Pour in another 1/3 cup water. Now it depends on the weather, season, and the zeitgeist. Pour in only so much more water as the dough forms a ball but is still pretty sticky. When the dough is in your hand, it should stick to it but come clean off. The ball should barely hold together. I have developed a feel for how sticky it should be for the way I like it.
Put the dough formed into a ball in a large pyrex bowl and cover with saran wrap. Set aside for 18 hours. The surface of the dough should look pockmarked; the underside riddled with holes.
After 18 hours or so, sprinkle some flour on a work surface. Quickly and lightly scoop the dough out of the bowl, making sure to wipe up all the stringy bits of dough clinging to the bowl. Form lightly into a ball and place on the work surface, covered by smooth-napped kitchen towel or plastic wrap, for 15 mins. to rest.
Place a smooth-napped kitchen towel on another work surface. Sprinkle with flour or corn meal. Pinch the resting dough on the outside edge and bring it to the center. Repeat until one side of the dough is a smooth round ball and the bottom side’s puckered ends are joined together in the middle. Place the rounded ball, puckered-side down, in the center of the kitchen towel, fold the ends of the towel to cover it, and let rest two hours.
A little more than half an hour before the two hours are up, place a big covered Le Creuset pot or other enormous dutch oven-like pot in the oven. Heat the oven to 475 for a full half hour. When the oven is sufficiently hot, act quickly. Pull the pot out to the top of the stove and shut the oven door. Take off the lid. Placing your hand under the kitchen towel, flip the dough into the pot, puckered-side facing up, and quickly cover the pot. Return pot to oven. Reduce oven temp to 450. Bake covered 20 mins. Uncover pot and bake for 15-20 mins more. It should be as dark brown as you can get it without the bottom burning.
I use tongs to remove the bread from the pot. Place the bread on a cooling rack and don’t touch it for an hour.
Following no other bread recipe has my bread dough attained the jump and height that this dough has. It must be the steam in the pot that does it. Ever since I started adding malt barley powder, the crumb has had a subtle but richer flavor. And the airholes are consistently perfect.