The cold has quietly stolen the show in the city bringing with it the undeniable fact that we are nearing Thanksgiving. I don’t do very well with breaks in routine, unwieldy family gatherings, or (overly) spreading myself around. This year I’ve decided not to spread myself too thin under the philosophy of self-protection. I’m actually pretty happy about that. Since Thanksgiving is a food-centric holiday, and cooking is kind of my thing, I finally have something other than alcohol to contribute. Something rustic, seasonal and easy that will make me (and you!) look like a hero. I plan to bring this bread around like an accessory at least for the next few weeks, dropping it on every table I visit, nonchalantly like “Hi, yes I baked a loaf of bread. That’s the new me, a baker slaving away in the kitchen.” The secret is that active work here is a five minute affair. After the success of my challah and reading about how EASY this bread is to make flawlessly, I just had to.
In my family the matriarchs still hold court over the cooking and gathering. Anything self-hosted is always an after thought when you have titans like my mom and mother-in-law at the helm. They will be turning out all sorts of soups, pies, turkeys, sauces, and sides. I have not yet assumed the mantle of cooking for my family. Our parents are still young enough and my siblings, husband and I not yet old enough to have taken the reigns. For a moment, an evening, the old boundaries are reset. I think that’s what makes holiday gatherings so stressful and so special at the same time. They force you to embrace and accept the idea of the passage of time, the cycle of life and accept constant change. We see in each other’s faces resilience, persistence, the precious ephemeral nature of our own personal existence and that of us as a unit and hopefully it makes us mindful of the moments and their accumulation. For me, showing up with my contribution somehow reaffirms my identity as it exists now, in this moment as it is reflective of all of the experimenting I’ve been doing in my kitchen, with my time and space. A simple affirmative and grounding gesture in the form of a cranberry walnut bread.
Baking bread is such an ancient art form it also reminds me that my family unit and my place in this world is a tiny microcosm of history and the world at large. It brings a little perspective in a time where that is so easy to lose. It also fills your home with an incredible rewarding smell.
How it works:
No-knead bread is a process that takes kneading out of the equation entirely, developed by Sullivan Street Bakery guru Jim Lahey and fondly embraced by many-a-baker. You simply combine your ingredients in under 5 minutes and let the humble cast of flour, salt, water, yeast, cranberries and walnuts come together and overnight, under the labor of time they rise. Shape into a loaf, bake in a preheated Dutch oven. It’s nearly effortless. In about an hour you’ve got gorgeous, old world style bread and you, my dear, are a hero.
What is it about bread that makes me geek out so much? In my challah recipe I talk about how kneading the dough helps form the gluten strands and how knowing that forced me out of my bed in the middle of the night to make sure I’d done it right. How then does the no-knead bread recipe produce the same effect? With the help of enzymes. Flour naturally contains enzymes that break down long proteins into shorter ones in a process called autolysis. Bakers have known about this process for years, and many incorporate an autolysis step into their recipes, mixing together flour and water and allowing it to rest before adding the remaining ingredients and kneading (salt can inhibit the action of autolysis).
By breaking down the proteins into shorter pieces in this way, they become much easier to untangle and re-align, greatly increasing the efficiency of the little folding that you do for this recipe.
The No-Knead Bread recipe simply takes this concept to the extreme. By mixing together your ingredients and letting them sit around at room temperature for a long, long time (the best loaves I’ve made actually chill in the fridge for days—remember, there’s salt in the dough which inhibits autolysis, so you need to compensate for this), the proteins are broken down so much, that even the tiniest of mechanical actions can cause them to align and link up. The yeast does the kneading.
Problems and Fixes
My main issue with the original recipe is that it’s way undersalted. I added more in the next round and to keep the salt from inhibiting autolysis too much if I left it in the fridge longer.
And as always, when it comes to baking, which I was scared of for so long, you really need to keep in mind ratios, ratios, ratios! After tons of reading and testing, the ideal ratio here is 100 parts flour, 1.5 parts salt (I’ve gone up to 2% and been fine), 1 part instant yeast, and 70 parts water. This makes a lot more sense if you’re weighing the ingredients, but I don’t own a scale either for myself or my food. I just do the conversions and division, multiplication on my own, or for the days when I just can’t, I risk failure. Such is life. However, I will say this: You cannot mess this up. If I can do this, anyone can.
(Yields one loaf)
- 2 cups bread flour, more for dusting
- 1 cup secondary flour (whole-wheat, rye, or another)
- 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
- Just under 1 tablespoon sea salt (if you have less time for the dough to sit, cut it to just over 1 tsp)
- ¼ cup chopped walnuts
- ¼ cup dried cranberries
- 1 2/3 cup water
- Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed
In a large bowl combine flours, yeast and salt. Add water, walnuts and cranberries. and stir until combined; dough will be sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rise at least 12 hours (up to about 18) at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. When dough’s surface is dotted with bubbles, it is ready and will yield a good loaf. However, to increase flavor after this step (and this really makes a difference) refrigerate for 3 days (up to 5).
Dust a work surface (I used parchment paper) with flour and turn dough out onto it. Sprinkle dough with flour and fold it over on itself a few times. Shape it into a round and wrap dough in a flour-dusted cotton towel, seam side down. Let dough rise another 2 (up to 4) hours, until double in size. It will retain a finger poke when it is ready. When dough has risen, slash top with a floured knife into two or three slashes, 1/2 inch deep.
About 30 minutes before the dough is ready, heat oven to 450 dgF. Place a heavy cast-iron, enamel or ceramic pot in the oven as it heats (I use my 5-qt Le Creuset). When dough is fully risen, put the parchment paper into the pot and dump the loaf onto it into the preheated pot. Cover pot with lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and let bread bake another 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. Cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving.