Friday, November 10, 2006

On not kneading

I just made the most heavenly bread, an Italian-style loaf with a crisp crust and chewy, open-grained interior. And I did it by doing mostly nothing--no kneading, no dissolving yeast in water that's just the right temperature, no spoonfuls of sugar, butter, powdered milk. The essence of the recipe is that you mix flour, salt, water and a tiny bit of yeast and leave it overnight to do its magic. The recipe seems complicated because it's so different from a traditional bread recipe, but actually it's much simpler in practice, and I had it memorized after baking the bread only once. (Recipe below.)

As my second loaf (even better) was rising, a metaphor was rising in my brain.

I've been working so hard. I made signs for Prop 89 and spent hours holding them up on freeway overpasses. I wrote letters, researched questions, organized meetings and tabling activities, entered names in databases, did weekly conference calls, precinct walking, phone banking, leafletting at supermarkets, distributing yard signs all over Sonoma County...

And what do I have to show for it? A measly 30% approval rating in Sonoma, only 5% more than the state average, in one of the most liberal counties in the state. Maybe it would have done BETTER if I'd done nothing!

Sometimes trying too hard may not be the best way. For the last three months I've barely had time to think. Now that the election is over, I can think. I can remember to breathe. I must recapture the joy of just...doing...nothing.

But only if I stop going over and over the process in my mind to try to figure out what I should have, could have done differently.

You get where I'm going--just let it rest overnight, and in the morning you just might have a loaf of beautiful bread. Okay, here's the recipe:

No-Knead Bread

The best time to start this bread is in the evening. Mix 3 cups of flour, 1-1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon yeast and 1-5/8 cups of water in a largish bowl, and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it set in a warm place for 12 to 18 hours. (Bread doesn't fit your time schedule? Pas de probleme! Stir it down at any point to add a couple of hours to the rising time.)

The dough should be a little wetter than regular bread dough, but it's not persnickety as to proportions.

The next morning, when the dough has risen to double or more in size and there are little bubbles on top, stir it down. Let it rest a few minutes and then fold it over three or four times with a rubber spatula.

Heavily flour a piece of non-terry cloth and place the blob of dough on it. Heavily flour the top and cover it with another piece of cloth. Let it rise another couple of hours. About a half hour before you bake it, put a large heavy covered pot in the oven and set it for 450 degrees.

When the bread has risen to twice its volume, remove the pot from the oven, take the top cloth off the bread, slide your hand under the bottom cloth and tip the dough into the pot. you can shake the pot a little if the dough goes in crooked, but the bread will straighten itself out as it cooks. Put the lid on and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and cook for another 15-20 minutes, or until it's nicely browned and the crust is crisp. The bread should have a hollow sound when you take it out and thump the bottom.

Cool it on a rack, and enjoy!


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