2006 called Monday, right on time, since PQ Castle had just gotten down to the crumbs of last week's loaf of Easy Multi-Grain Bread. Breakfast has always been toast-dependent here, perhaps due to the vast overstock of jam & marmalade currently stashed under the bed, or because nothing goes as well with that very necessary first cup of cafe au lait as a plate full of crunchy brown toast.
So, the Castle being bereft of bread but well-stocked with various flours and most importantly, the long-stored, much-missed, well-loved little Le Creuset enameled cast-iron pot, we got to thinking about no-knead bread, which made such a sensation when it first came out. I remembered baking it several times back then in my Cobble Hill apartment and being quite pleased with the results.
So I consulted a past PQ entry and, mindful of my own advice, mixed up a batch of dough, using a mixture of what was on hand: about 1/2 cup of white flour, another 1/2 cup of rye flour, a cup of whole-wheat and another cup of coarse-milled graham flour. Why this mix? Simply because that's what I had--a little bit each of a bunch of different things. I do think this bread benefits from at least a little white flour in the mix, although I do prefer that the whole grains predominate, for health and taste. Also because, here in the Bay Area, there is so much high-quality white bread already out there, baguettes and boules and sourdough and pain au levain, why would you bother making yet another white loaf? The fun is in making up your own mix, adjusted to taste and made out of whatever's in the cupboard.
This is part of Kitchen-Cabinet Homesteading: Use what you've got. It's hardly frugal to keep running to Rainbow Grocery or Berkeley Bowl to get another plastic baggie filled with this grain or that flour, of which half will be used and the other half left, unlabeled and unloved, to subside into rancid dusty nothingness. If you got it for one thing, find a way to use it for something else.
The dough was very wet and sticky-goopy, but I let to do its thing under a sheet of plastic wrap. Perhaps because my kitchen is quite cool--closer to 60 than the typical central-heated 70 degrees--it rose very slowly, and didn't seem to mind being left out for a full 24 hours, rather than the recommended 12 to 18. Stirred down, with a couple of tablespoons of flour sprinkled over to make it workable, it had a lovely bouncing, eager quality, supple and light, and quite unlike the denser doughs I usually make.
The trick to the second rise is finding something that this very wet dough won't stick to. Regular flour is no good; much better is rice flour, if you have it, or cornmeal. The original instructions call for rubbing a tea towel with plenty of rice flour or cornmeal, then lining a shallow bowl or basket with it to make a home for the dough's second rise. Still, however much I sprinkled or rubbed, the dough always seemed to get caught in the folds, sticking and deflating when the time came to heave it from basket to oven.
Instead, I laid down a thick layer of rice flour in a high-sided cake pan, rolled the dough into a fat round, and let it rise there. The sides of the pan girdled the slack dough, helping it stand up as it proved. Meanwhile, during the last half-hour of rising, I heated up the pot and lid in a 450 degree oven. (I've also had good luck dumping the dough onto a preheated pizza/baking stone, then covering it with a preheated, upside down cast-iron pot.) The idea is to make something like a mini brick oven, in which the dough is trapped in a very hot place with indirect heat radiating inwards from all sides. As the moisture of the dough evaporates outward, it forms air pockets inside the crumb and bathes the outside of the dough in steam, which helps create that classic, hard-to-achieve, crisp-chewy crust.
Once the oven was hot and the dough risen, I flipped the pan over--quickly! no hesitating!--and the poofy, risen dough fell into the hot pot barely deflated. Clapped on the lid and into the oven for about 40 minutes, another 15 minutes with the lid off, then a final all-around crisping up out of the pot on the oven rack for another 5 or 10 minutes.
Out of the oven onto the counter to cool--because of the dampness of the crumb, this is a bread that needs to cool down intact. No matter how divine it smells, let it be for at least an hour. Sitting there on the counter, it's still cooking inside, and ripping into it while it's still crackling-hot will result in a loaf that's gummy inside rather than appealingly moist.
Sliced later in the day, spread with butter and marmalade, this was a lovely, full-flavored, wholesome thing, spattered with holes inside, rustic and very appealing, and well worth the 10 minutes of actual work it required.
No-Knead Whole-Grain Bread
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
15 oz (3 cups) mixed flours, including white, whole-wheat, coarse (graham) whole wheat, and rye, or whatever mix of flours you have on hand
2 scant teaspoons sea salt
1. Sprinkle yeast over the water in a measuring cup, and let sit for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until yeast has dissolved.
2. Stir flours and salt together in a big bowl. Add yeast mixture, and stir vigorously until a rough dough is formed. Cover with a damp tea towel or a sheet of plastic wrap. Place somewhere cool-ish, dry, and out of the way for 18 to 24 hours. It will roughly double in size and look bubbly.
3. Stir down, adding a little more flour as necessary to make the dough able to be shaped. Fold dough over onto itself several times, until it holds together. Shape into a ball.
4. Thickly powder a high-sided 8" or 9" cake pan with rice flour or cornmeal. Place the ball in it. Drape with plastic wrap and let rise for another 2 hours, until well-puffed.
5. 30 minutes before dough is fully risen, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a heavy ovenproof pot and lid (like an earthenware or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven) into the oven.
6. After pot has heated for at least 30 minutes, remove the lid and quickly dump the dough into the pot. Clap on the lid and return to the oven to bake for 30-40 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 15 minutes to brown crust. If a thicker crust is desired, remove loaf from pot and let it bake bare on the oven rack for another 5-10 minutes.
7. Remove from oven and let cool for at least an hour before slicing.