What better to do on a chilly fall day, temps down to a crisp 21 degrees, fire blazing in the wood stove, than to make a golden loaf of bread? And who better to do it than Kim Moss (see previous posts A Very Mini Artist Colony in New Mexico and How to Make a Perfect Country Loaf by Kim Moss)? Here is his recipe and steps to making the perfect country loaf, as well as his thoughts on bread making:
Adventures in the Art of Bread Making
By Kim Moss, previously published in the Santa Fe New Mexican
Since I first started to learn about cooking, bread has held a great fascination for me.
I wanted to be able to duplicate the wonderful French baguette and Italian round loaves that I had known in Europe. They were a meal in themselves, with tender crumb and a flaked brown exterior with just the right resistance and crunch.
I read all I could find about baking bread, including Julia Child’s treatise on making a proper baguette in her now classic Mastering The Art of French Cooking. She seemed obsessed enough with the topic herself, having done a great amount of research on the subject when she lived in France. So I followed her lead closely.
Living in Vermont at the time, not far from a company that sold slabs of soapstone mined nearby, I purchased a large rectangular piece that fit into my Garland oven. I also took two smaller chunks.
I decided I would make the dough as Child described, shaping it for the third rise. Heating the oven with the flat stone in place and a pan of water below it, I simultaneously heated the two chunks of stone over the burners.
When the bread had risen and the oven was heated, I slashed the baguettes and slid them off a wooden paddle onto the hot stone. Then I immediately took a heated chunk of stone off the burner with tongs, dropped it into the water and closed the oven door, producing an explosion of steam. By keeping the bread surface supple, this final procedure insured the last surge of yeast-driven expansion.
All of this produced some very good bread.
Over the years I’ve made countless loaves, always experimenting but never straying very far from this process.
More recently I worked alongside Cary Clark, who was the bread and pastry chef at Brian Knox’s Cafe Escalera. The original bread recipe at Escalera, Clark says, came from a place in Berkeley, Calif., across from Chez Panisse, called The Cheese Board.
Clark also formed the original bread program for Aqua Santa, also owned by Knox, giving the restaurant its now legendary dinner loaf. At Aqua Santa, the bread is baked in a brick-lined pizza oven, using most of the standard techniques described above — albeit with Clark’s added sensibility and dough recipe.
I remember asking him one day, as he kneaded the dough, how he knew when it was ready. His reply: “When it’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom.”I’ve never been a father, but I know what he means.
A new obsession
Last autumn I came across an article on bread in The New York Times written by Mark Bittman, who was using earthenware and enameled metal containers to create a small oven within the oven. This technique took the place of the hot stone and steam procedure described above.
Toward the end of the third and final rise of the dough, the earthenware or metal container, with its lid, is heated, empty, in the oven. The risen dough is then tipped gently into the heated container, the lid goes on and all goes back in the oven for an hour. The lid comes off halfway through, to allow browning and final baking. No slashing or steaming is necessary, because the container keeps the moisture close.
My obsession renewed now by a radically different approach to the perfect loaf, I started to experiment. I found Bittman’s recipe too wet, resulting in a flatter, heavier loaf with the crumb denser than I wanted. I also tried different flours, since certain brands act differently.
The size of the container mattered as well. I settled on a French earthenware casserole that had enough room to leave some space around the loaf. The final result is amazing — a round loaf that you cannot tell wasn’t flown in from someplace in Italy, France or Spain, fired in ancient wood-burning ovens.
This is a slight exaggeration, but not much. The look of the loaf is beautiful, with cream-colored striations of slightly browned flour against the darker browned surface, and thin tiles of crust cracking and curling away slightly around the sides and bottom of the high rounded form.
If you can restrain yourself from slicing into the loaf too early, and allow the bread to cool and compose itself, the reward is a combination of tender crumb and crisp crust that is truly wonderful.
Bittman touts his recipe to be “no knead” — as if that were a good feature. I like to get my hands close to food, and kneading is as good for the bread as it is for the hands.
Some people like to keep recipes and procedures secret. That’s all well and good and I make no judgment about it. But I want good discoveries to go out into the world. They always come back, usually improved.
This is what I’ve learned about the optimal container for baking bread. The ideal container needs to be 9-1/2 to 10 inches for the inside dimension, and 4-1/2 to 5 inches tall. A lid that’s slightly domed is preferable.
An earthenware container is my first choice — for both the lightness of the loaf and its aesthetic appeal. It seems more forgiving in heat transfer, too, though earthenware pots are more fragile and can be harder to find in the right proportions.
Earthenware also needs to be soaked overnight in fresh water and heated in the oven before it’s used for the first time. (Instructions for this preliminary preparation usually come with the container.)
In this climate and because the container will be used at high temperatures for bread making, I suggest frequent re-soaking.
The Spanish Table has a wonderful selection of earthenware containers, and it recently received a shipment just right for baking bread. Hurry there if you want one, since it can be a stretch between shipments.
National Restaurant Supply in Albuquerque also carries some earthenware pots, though they may have to order one for you.
By far the best selection of cast-iron containers I found was at Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe in DeVargas Center. I particularly liked the Mario Batali line of enameled cast iron, finding it an excellent value.
My current bread recipe is close to Child’s original, with some changes in technique in the final procedure. I use King Arthur Bread Flour. I’ve tried to be meticulous in describing the bread-making process, and used many words that can make it sound formidable. But once you’ve gotten the feel of it, it really is quite simple.
BASIC COUNTRY LOAF
(Makes 1 loaf)
3-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1-3/4 teaspoons salt
1 package (7 grams) active dry yeast
Tepid water (warm but not hot)
Measure 1/3 cup of tepid water into a glass and pour in the package of yeast. Let it sit while you proceed with the recipe.
Measure the flour into a medium-size bowl and add the salt. Stir the dry ingredients with a spoon or whisk till blended.
Stir the yeast until it’s completely dissolved, then add it to the flour.
Measure an additional 1-1/4 cups of tepid water, and add them to the flour-yeast mixture.
Take a spatula (not a whisk) and work the mixture into a fairly well-blended mass of dough, then turn it onto a floured surface to knead. As you knead, keep lightly flouring the dough as needed to keep it from sticking to your fingers and the surface. A pastry scraper is handy here.
Keep pulling and folding the dough over on itself, then pushing down and forward with the heel of your hand, turning and pulling and folding until you have a smooth mass of dough. This should take only a few minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball and put it into a clean bowl that’s large enough to let the dough rise to three times its size, and cover with plastic wrap or towel.
Set the bowl somewhere at room temperature where you can keep an eye on it. I find that no matter how closely you gauge everything, there are mysterious changeable elements in bread making that alter its rising and baking — so the final result is always a bit of a revelation. We know that humidity and temperature are some of the factors affecting bread making, but there are many others as well.
When the dough has risen to about three times its size, take a spatula and scrape and fold the dough back down to its original size. Cover and let rise it once again.
As the dough reaches the end of the second rise, take a cotton dishtowel (not terrycloth) lay it flat and generously flour it, working the flour into the weave. Carefully lay this towel over and slightly into a clean bowl that’s the same size as the one used for rising.
Flour a surface for the final kneading and scoop the dough out onto it. Dust the top of the dough and knead it the same way as before, but this time handle it just enough to work out larger bubbles.
Shape the dough into a ball again. Take the ball and place it on the floured towel and set it down into the bowl. Cover it with another towel and let it rise once again.
As the dough begins to reach triple its original size, start the stove, heating to 450 degrees, with the cast-iron or earthenware container and its lid, tipped to one side, inside.
Set the oven rack to assure there’s enough room inside for the container with its lid on. You also will need to prepare a heat-proof place near the bowl of dough to set the hot container when you take it out of the oven.
When the oven reaches temperature, the dough should be ready.
Take a deep breath and move carefully and slowly. With mitts or towels, open the stove. Remove the lid; set it on the top of the stove. Then take the container out and set it onto a heat-proof surface near the bowl of dough.
Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour, gently lift it by the edges of the towel, and tip and roll the dough slowly into the hot container so that it is bottom up. If the dough sticks to the towel, slow the process down so it can gently pull away from the fabric.
Once in the container, if the dough needs to be centered, just tip the container a bit and slide it. Put the lid on and carefully get the container back into the oven.
Set a timer for 30 minutes. Remove the lid from the container when the timer goes off and set it on the top of the stove. You won’t be using it again. Then set the timer for another half hour. When it goes off, the bread should be brown and ready to come out of the oven.
Take it out and tip the container, if need be, to remove the finished loaf; put it on a wire rack to cool for at least an hour or two. The bread surface will crackle and split as the interior moisture works out to the hot, dry exterior. This is a wonderful sound and sight, but try to restrain from cutting until it’s had time to cool and compose itself.
The Spanish Table
109 N. Guadalupe St.
Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe
181 Paseo de Peralta
National Restaurant Supply
2513 Comanche NE, Albuquerque