The goal of these cooking quests is to discover new things about food, be it a method, an ingredient, or even a new mode of cooking. The list can only include items that I know about or have heard about, and it’s still dauntingly long. Right up there at the top of the list is “learning to bake artisan breads and rolls.”
Baking bread has a sort of mysterious romance about it. The fact that so few ingredients can create something so complex has always intrigued me. So when winter set in, and the soups were a-simmering, I decided it was time to get baking.
Bread has always been one of my favorite foods. I was one of those seminary girls who was fine with delicious challah, some good Israeli chummus, and then who cared if they were serving gefilte fish with some bones in it. Whole grain breads, multigrain baguettes, sesame bagels … They don’t really need much more than a thick soup to make a perfectly satisfying meal.
I have limited experience, aside from challah, with baking bread. We did go through a bread machine stint, but it didn’t last long, and I’m not sure that counts as artisan bread anyway. I also had some out-of-town guests once for whom I baked the most heavenly quinoa rolls (first published in Kosher Inspired). Afterwards I went to the health food store and bought some interesting flours, such as whole spelt, oat, and rye, that I thought I needed for multigrain bread.
Bad idea. I usually go shopping to get inspired to cook. Turns out that while rye flour might inspire baking, it isn’t very practical. I bought a big cookbook called The Bread Bible and confidently marched into the kitchen to make rye bread. It seems that good rye bread requires a bread starter. So while making and feeding a starter is somewhere halfway down my list, I don’t have one yet. (If you have no idea what a bread starter is, you’re in good company, and that’s why it’s on my list.)
Not one to be put off easily, I began flipping though the book for some other simpler options and put my plan on hold for a while.
Then there was this woman standing behind me in line at the produce store who was telling her friend about a bread recipe she was making for dinner. I am not generally one to eavesdrop, but this sounded too good to be true. An artisan bread that didn’t need too much work on behalf of the baker. The ingredients do all the work, with a bit of technique to make it happen.
I forgot all about the conversation until my mother-in-law e-mailed me an article from the New York Times, featuring a recipe for a no-knead bread. This had to be the bread the woman at the produce store was talking about. It looked too good to be true, but I was determined to try. I even went out and bought a new bright yellow ceramic pot for the adventure.
I followed the directions to a T, to ensure perfect results. My wildest imagination could not have conjured up what these four simple ingredients produced. The crust was crunchy and light, while the chewy center was dotted with irregularly shaped holes. It was truly a work of art.
Here is the recipe as I found it in the New York Times. I brushed mine with some rosemary oil after uncovering the pot during baking. When it came out of the oven, I served it sliced, with a drizzle or two more of the oil.
This bread is only good when served within 12 hours. Toast it if serving after this point. After you have mastered it once, make it again, and add in your favorite seeds, herbs, or spices.
Each time I make this recipe, the house fills with the smell of homemade artisan bread, and I admit that I get a small thrill of excitement. I haven’t quite crossed the art of bread making off my list, but I have at least mastered the no-knead, overnight bread.