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Friday, April 11, 2008

No-knead Pain au Levain, no, really!

no-knead pain au levain

Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman's co-accomplishment in the culinary world is such that it now can be divided into the Pre No-knead (PrN) period and the Post No-knead (PoN) period.  When Mark Bittman published the recipe in the New York Times, it incited such a sensation: home cooks who'd dared not touch yeast bread were found stirring up sticky dough, scorching their pristine Le Creuset Dutch Ovens, and blasting the poor little lid knob in the process, all in the name of holy, hole-y, and crispy-crust breads just like those one could get at a corner boulangerie in Paris.  Were we to live near one, that is.

I too had ready success with the recipe.  The first no-knead loaf I produced--the very first loaf of bread I've ever made, in fact--was gorgeous, irregular holes, super crisp crust, and even holding it's shape pretty well despite having been such a sticky, messy dough.  The bottom burnt a little, but I brushed it off as a simple novice mistake.

The problem?  No flavor!  It didn't taste bad, it really didn't.  It was just an inoffensive-tasting bread with a great texture and structure.  Still, I was bitten by the no-knead bug.  I was simply astonished that I too could make bread.  How cool was that?  I was determined to continue, and even more determined to put some taste into this bread.  I resisted using herbs, dried fruits, olives, or any other normal additions to the bread.  I was looking to put flavor in the bread itself, not to dress up the otherwise homely loaf in the culinary equivalent of bling.

After baking I don't know how many loafs, I finally found one I love.  This is it. 

no-knead pain au levain

The bread I am in love with at the moment is a no-knead bread that uses a sourdough or levain starter instead of commercial yeast.  What I was looking for in the original no-knead bread was the flavor, that lovely, yeasty, well-developed flavor that comes from the long fermentation of the starter.  Bread that tastes like proper bread, imagine that!

I'm not the first who thought of using starter in the no-knead recipe by any means.  My friend Robert Schonfeld, an avid amateur baker, suggested to me the first time I complaint about the lack of flavor in my first no-knead loaf.  Many established sourdough bakers have already gone that route before me as well.  The only difference for me is, those sourdough bakers have all been accustomed to feeding and keeping their starter alive, and they probably bake enough bread to be worth all that efforts.  For me, I had to find out for myself if I could find a starter that I could keep alive with minimal effort, since I only plan on baking two loafs a week at most. 

So I went begging for a starter.  I've read all the instructions in books and many websites and blogs about how to start your own starter.  I've also heard that long established starters have far better flavor than newer ones.  So I decided to find me some of that.  I went begging, and I didn't have to go far.  My friend Chris Avila, the chef of one of my favorite Santa Cruz hangouts, La Posta, bakes bread for his restaurant every day.  Chris's starter is over 20 year's old, and he's ever so kind to share some with me.

With Chris's starter and Robert's conversion of the original no-knead recipe to one using a starter, I was ready to go to work.  Chris's starter is called in the sourdough circle a 100% starter, with 50:50 ratio of flour and water.  The recipe Robert kindly converted for me also uses 100% starter, so all I had to do is keep feeding it the same ratio of flour:water to maintain the same level of hydration appropriate for my recipe.  I feed my starter only once a day, and when I don't plan on baking any bread for the next few days I put it in the fridge, where it can live for a while between feeding. 

I can tell you all kinds of tales about the trials and tribulations of my early attempts, but I'd rather tell you about my success.  Here is the recipe for the best bread I've baked so far.  I've been baking one a day for nearly a week now.  I didn't think I would find use for so much bread, but every time I have a bit extra there's always a waiting hand or two to take it. 

This bread is closer in flavor to the French Pain au Levain than the classic American sourdough.  That's by design rather than by accident.  I think a little acidity in bread brings out other flavors, but I dislike overtly sour bread.  I keep my starter refreshed and don't let it go too long between feeding, in order to keep the acidity in check.  I also use other flours besides white bread flour to add a slight nutty sweetness to my bread.   I keep a good percentage of white bread flour in the recipe to avoid the super dense texture of fully whole wheat bread.  The result is a delicious, nutty, slightly sour Pain au Levain with spelt, barley, and wholewheat flour added.

Here's the recipe.  It's by weight only, sorry.  The recipe Robert converted for me was by weight, and as I adjusted and worked on the recipe I kept it by weight.  If you don't own a kitchen scale, consider getting one.  It's a worthwhile investment.

14.5oz (410g) flour blend
     [6oz (170)g white bread
     3oz (85g) spelt flour
     3oz (85g) barley flour
     2.5oz (70g) whole wheat flour]
2 tsp kosher salt (about 10g)
8.5oz (240) starter
9oz (255g) water
1tbsp honey

1. Add the flour blend into a large kitchen bowl.  You can use the blend I suggested here, or just make up your own blend.  (I suggest you keep the white flour at the same amount and vary the quantity or type of other flour to get the flavor you want.  I find that using a smaller ratio of white flour can turn the bread a little too dense for my taste.  Then again if that's what you're going for then by all means.)  Add the salt and mix well to incorporate the salt into the flour. 

2. Add the starter, water, and honey, and mix until everything comes together into a wet, well-incorporated lump of shaggy dough.  Cover the bowl with plastic and let rest in a draft free place on the counter top for at least 12 hours.  I usually mix this before I go to bed so it's ready for me to work on after breakfast in the morning.

3. After at least 12 hours the dough should look like this.   


Here's a shot from the side of the bowl, you can see your starter going to work and building up gases and rising the dough.


4. Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a well-flourer counter top.  Pull the dough into a more of less long rectangular shape.  Pick up one end and fold it into third, then pick up the other end and fold it over into a neat packet.  You can turn the dough 90 degree and then stretch and fold one more time if you'd like.  I usually do about two.



5. Pick up the folded dough and place it, seam side down, on the counter top or in a bread basket if you have one.  I use one of these.  Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and an upturn bowl.  If using a basket you might want to cover it with a plastic grocery bag and tie the bag to prevent too much air circulation.  You want to create a moist, closed environment to help the dough rise for the second time.  Leave the dough to rise for 2 hours.


6. After about 1.5 hours,  place the dutch oven or any pot you plan to use to bake your bread into the oven and turn it on to preheat to 450F or about 240C.  If your kitchen is a little cool you can place the resting dough on top of the warming oven.  The heat should help it rise a bit better.  I usually don't put my (still covered) dough basket on top of the oven directly, the bottom can overheat.  I place it on a dinner plate and then on the stove to prevent overheating.

7. When the oven is ready and the dough has rested for 2 hours, pull the pot out.  Take the dough and place it into it, close the lid and place the pot back into the oven.  This dough should be sturdy enough for you to pick up with two hands and then place it, seam side down, inside the pot.  Be careful when you do this, your pot is white hot!  Once you're a bit more used to handling this dough, you can get fancy and slash the top of your bread to make it pretty, but frankly you don't need to, the seam will open by itself and your bread will look natural and pretty already.

8. Bake the bread in the covered pot for 30 minutes, then remove the lid, and continue to bake for another 15-25 minutes until the bread is golden brown.  Remove the bread from the pot and let cool on a wire rack.  You should hear the bread crackles as it cools. 


Here's what it looks like inside.  You can see the lovely texture of this.  This is a mixed flour loaf so it's a bit more dense than the all-white loaf, but you can still see the lovely, open-crumb texture of the bread. 


That's all.  Easy, isn't it? 


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