In Search Of The Perfect Loaf..For Loafers
Everybody has one of two movies that have made an impression on them in their lives... or maybe five or six. Either way, I believe we all walk around with internal movies playing in our heads, or at least the trailers for them. There's that deep voiced guy saying... "In a world where everything was upside down...." you take it from there.
I know that I cannot for the life of me try on clothes without thinking of Julia Roberts in that dressing room in Pretty Woman (hey, I told you this was a fantasy) or set a table without the memory of Babettes' Feast, and don't even get me started on the endless outfits in The Devil Wears Prada. But the movie that made one of the biggest impressions on me didn't concern stilettos or over the top food porn. It had to do with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin with a pissed off Kodiak bear on their ass in The Edge .
In this movie Anthony Hopkins (Sir) is stranded out in the woods with Alec Baldwin, and what keeps them alive is that Hopkins' character Charles knows how to do stuff. The old fashioned way. Ancient lore. Which was why after seeing this film, I really decided there were a few things I needed to know how to do well. Just in case of a zombie attack or 2012, I wanted to be prepared. It's not that I was a Girl Scout. Actually I was a pretty poor Girl Scout all things considered. The only badge I ever managed to get was The Story Teller Badge... and that could easily be confused with just being a good liar.
My Girl Scout troop was unusual to say the least. We met in the Tiki bar in the basement rec room of our troop leader's house. Nine little Girl Scouts on barstools glueing rhinestones onto empty pill bottles, making "perfume bottles" for our moms while our Troop leader and her assistant, the bored lady from next door, sipped cocktails and listened to Louis Prima.
After picking me up from Girl Scouts a few times and getting the blinged-out pill bottle for Mothers' Day, my mom pulled me from the troop and the troop was disbanded. We never went camping, but come to think of it, that Tiki bar was pretty damn campy all by its' ownself. Who was that troop leader you may ask? Judy Garland? No, just some lady who taught us to Be Prepared cause even old Valium bottles can be re-purposed.
But how does that get us back to basics? Well, I actually read my girl scout handbook and then got other books on " things one should know." My great grandmother's Native Daughters of the Golden West Cookbook for one, filled with recipes that had no cooking times and talked a lot about "hot" fires in the stove and measuring things out in "dessert spoons." It also contained recipes for Squirrel, and venison, how to clean a wild duck and how to make candy. How to preserve crabapples and pickle watermelon and something called Bible Cake and Batchelor Bait Cake.
Damn I thought, enough with the Valley of the Dolls Craft Hour..these dames were pre-pared... big time! I wanted to learn to do these things too. Because after the zombies attack somebody has to re-start civilization, and where better to start than with the staff of life... bread.
Years ago my mom got a booklet in the mail advertising a bread machine. Back in the day, these machines were rare and pricy and totally off the table for my household. I however was fascinated by the booklet. It was filed with bread recipes. I studied them and then I started to bake. I'd get right up to the part that said put into the bread machine... and then what? I grabbed great Grandma Fanny's cookbook. It told me to knead and let rise and punch down and let rise again and then bake in a "hot fire" (about 450 degrees). I had made bread! Without an expensive machine. I quickly went through all the recipes in the freebee booklet.
Over the years I made bread occasionally, but it was a long tedious process.So I stopped, but I was always intrigued by those fancy crusty (pricey) artisan loaves. And then came the New York Times Mark Bittman and No Knead Bread. I had to try it. I did and it worked... amazingly. Though my bread was never as attractive as the loaves illustrated, it still tasted good. I knew however that it could be better so I went on a search to perfect The Easiest Bread In The World.
One key turned out to be the flour I was using plain old organic, unbleached flour, I needed a true, high gluten, high protein flour to give my bread a kick in the pants and get it up on its' feet. Paula Wolfert had given me a big bag of Giustos Organic Ultimate Performer Unbleached Flour to try.
I tried it. It was amazing... but I still had the problem of spread (don't we all) and how to fix it. Paula lent me a Sassafras-La-Cloche-Brick-Oven Baker. Think of it as Spanx for your dough.
It was a good thing she lent it to me because I was unable to buy one. They're sold out everywhere and I was on a waiting list. The deal with this baker is that it duplicates a brick oven in your stove. I was using two pizza stones, one on top and one on the bottom, but the enclosed oven provides perfect humidity allowing the steam in the bread to escape, leaving all those gorgeous holes in the crumb. Also it helps the dough keep it's shape and not spread out in the hot oven. It also does not require a pan of hot water beneath the baking bread to provide moisture.
So, I had the perfect flour and a great container to bake the bread in. The rest was easy.
Believe me, I am no baker but I am now totally stoked about this bread and this method. Whether you bake it in a clay pot or a cast iron dutch oven or on a pizza stone, The Big Secret is using the best flour you can get your hands on. The other upside to this: Paula let me keep the Cloche..she knows an addict when she sees one.
Coming up next, I go all Mughlai on some Eggplant. Follow along on Twitter @kathygori