Note: As I learned more about bread, this particular recipe fell out of favor with me. The gummy crumb and puzzling lack of flavor despite the 18-hour rise simply wouldn’t do when compared with other rustic (albeit more-challenging) breads like ciabatta. If you’re new to bread baking, by all means, please try this out, but don’t think that this is the end-all be-all of bread baking.
This bread is one of those jewels in my culinary collection: impossibly simple to prepare yet impossibly delicious, it’s a great recipe to pull out when you want to serve homemade bread so fresh it’s still crackling from the oven and impress your guests with your bread-baking prowess. One of the reasons this bread is perfect in this role is because when you’re attempting to impress guests with the previously mentioned baking prowess, you’re likely trying to impress them with other aspects of your general kitchen prowess and don’t really have time to mix and knead and ferment and deflate and knead and rise and deflate and shape and proof and bake your bread. Count those steps! Just count them! While perfectly reasonable for your weekly or bi-weekly sandwich needs, it’s a bit excessive when you’re simultaneously trying to prepare a four-course authentic Italian meal for seven guests.
In steps the Magic Bread: the bread that has much more flavor than its four-ingredient recipe would imply and that gets those amazing “look at me and how much I rise” holes in the crumb without you ever so much as flouring a countertop or stuffing in two tablespoons of yeast. As an added bonus, the fermentation time is flexible. I often let the dough sit for longer than the recommended time, which is something you can get away with even better if you put it in a cooler place.
So, in short, this is a bread to impress. I recently served it at a dinner for friends, and one of my friends was amazed at the artisanal crust. “How did you get your crust like this?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “I put it in a Dutch oven.”
And let’s just say that when your friends haven’t ever heard of the cookware made famous by Le Creuset but they do associate the Dutch oven with the famous method to terrorize your spouse in bed via olafactory means, that is the most impressive answer of all.
From Jim Lahey at the Sullivan Street Bakery via Smitten Kitchen
Yields one 1 1/2 pound loaf
If you like to use vital wheat gluten as a bread enhancer, use 3 tablespoons of it instead of the additional 3 tablespoons flour.
This recipe was edited on 2 September 2007 to reflect changes in the amount of flour called for.
3 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast OR 1/3 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 5/8 cups water (aka 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons)
1¼ teaspoons salt
If using active dry yeast, wake up the yeast by mixing it with 2 tablespoons warm (about 105 degrees) water and letting it stand for about 5 minutes. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl and add 1 1/2 cups of water and yeast mixture. If using instant yeast, combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water.
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.
Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour parchment paper and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with and inverted bowl or plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
Generously coat a dry cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal. Dump dough onto towel (using a bench scraper to help, if necessary). Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball by pulling the sides up to the top. Quickly roll the dough over so it is resting seam-side down on the towel and dust with more flour. Cover with another dry 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.
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. If the lid has a handle, remove it. 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 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.
Add about 1/4 cup dried Italian herbs or Herbes de Provence to make a wonderfully aromatic loaf
Stir in the leaves from 2 fresh rosemary sprigs, very roughly chopped to make a fresh rosemary loaf (untested, but it sounds really good!)
For garlic bread, put one or two whole heads of garlic in a covered casserole dish in the oven at the same time you put the bread in. Take the garlic out at the same time you remove the bread and it will be tender enough for you to break off a clove and squeeze the garlic within onto your bread.
For a healthier loaf, substitute 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour for an equal amount of bread flour. The loaf will be noticeably smaller and because it has no sweetener or fat it will be decidedly wheatey. It makes fantastic grilled sandwiches!