I’ve mentioned my friends Hal and Kim before. They are like, the most super cool couple I know. She’s a pilot, speaks fluent Russian and has written a book. He’s a detective, is an incredible wordsmith and looks dashing/sexy in a bowtie and seersucker suit. But those are just the surface things. Underneath the super-fun and cool exteriors are hearts of solid gold of the purest variety.
Hal is the out-going one. There isn’t a bar in the world that he enters where he exits and doesn’t have a slew of new best friends added to his iPhone. It’s where I met him: at a wine bar. Kim is what my dad (after meeting her in yet another wine bar) described as a “sleeper.” At first, she seems sort of shy; she’s quiet and reserved at first blush. You know you’ve misjudged her the second she opens her mouth though because that woman is crazy-fucking-smart and in reality, anything but reserved.
Hal and Kim are not my best friends, but I love them all the same. They are good people to have in your life, whether they be just down the street or half a world away. Their constant generosity to everyone they meet is heartfelt, true and kick-ass. For the record, Hal is the guy you call when find yourself in a pickle or a police station.
The best thing to do with Hal and Kim is hang out with them in their back yard. Kim is a crazy gardener and they have a managed tangle of plants, trees and flowers that create an enclosed haven. You can sit on their spacious back porch and wax poetic on life, love and politics over countless bottles of wine. Squirrels will drop their half-eaten tree-nuts through the pergola though so there is the occasional duck-and-cover, followed by Kim’s squirrel-cursing and Hal’s attempt to shoo them off by chucking their once-dinner back up at them.
It was here, on this porch in this back yard that I first tasted the World’s Best Bread. It was a beautiful spring evening and the sun was just starting to set. The mosquitos weren’t yet in season. Hal was smoking salmon and the smell of that mingled with the bottle of red we were drinking gave me an almost heady sensation. We were just finishing up the first bottle when Hal says, “Hey Kim, the oven?” and Kim gasps and goes bolting into the house. A few minutes later a cutting board with a baguette and some butter appears on the table. I could see the steam rising off the bread.
There are no pretenses with Hal and Kim. No fluff. No worries. No formalities. Sharing food with them is like sharing air. We ripped off chunks of bread and dragged the pieces across the butter and shoved it in our mouths. It was crusty and yeasty and wonderful. I followed it with a gulp of wine, leaned back and looked up into the canopy of branches and knew then that life simply could not get better than that very moment.
Simple Crusty Bread Adapted from “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007) . You can read the original recipe from the NY Times here and you can read Kim’s version here.
Time: About 45 minutes plus about 3 hours’ resting and rising
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast (this is quite a bit of yeast: about 3-4 packets)
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
6 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, more for dusting dough
1. In a large bowl or plastic container, mix yeast and salt into 3 cups lukewarm water. Stir in flour, mixing until there are no dry patches. Dough will be quite loose. I used a Kitchen Aid mixer with a dough hook, but Kim says you can do it by hand.
Big, gooey, sticky mess.
My mixer didn’t come with a lid so I used a lid from my stock pot. Worked perfectly.
3. If you’re in a time crunch, you can form loaves to bake at this point. But this kind of no-knead dough is so wet, it’s incredibly hard to manage the dough and form a nice, smooth loaf. Best thing to do is plan ahead and refrigerate the dough for a few hours, or even overnight, after it rises. The cold dough is much easier to handle. The batch you’ve just mixed will make 4 loaves, and the dough lasts in the fridge for more than a week.
*I tried it both ways. After I had let it rise for 4 hours, I pulled out a handful to make a pizza crust. It worked, but it was hard and messy. More on that later….
If you’ve got a pizza peel (I don’t) and a baking stone (I do), put the stone and a small metal broiling pan in the oven and dust the pizza peel with either flour or cornmeal. For baguettes, I use flour. Cornmeal works well if you’re making a pizza or a round boule loaf. Be liberal with the flour on the pizza peel. Once this wet dough sticks to something, it basically merges with that object for all time (true dat).
4. Place broiler pan on bottom of oven. Place baking stone on middle rack and turn oven to 450 degrees; heat stone at that temperature for 20 minutes.
5. FOR PIZZA: Sprinkle flour on dough and cut off a grapefruit-size piece with serrated knife and form into a flat pizza shape. Kim lets it rise on the pizza peel, loads it up and then transfers it to the stone. Since this dough is VERY sticky I could NOT see how to do this (it might be easier with a metal peel and with refrigeration). Instead, I let it rise on a cheap foil pizza tin (remember to dust it with flour) I got at the grocery and prepped all my toppings. I did step #6 as quickly as I could.
6. Pull out the hot stone and place it on a heat-safe surface. Transfer the dough to the hot stone and quickly reshape. Place all the pre-prepped toppings on the pizza. Put the stone and pizza into the over (don’t forget the stone is still HOT!). Pour one cup hot water into broiler pan and shut oven quickly to trap steam. Bake about 30 minutes.
Toppings here include: fresh mini-mozzarella balls, spoonfuls of low-fat ricotta, fresh basil leaves, turkey pepperoni, grated parmesan and chopped green onions.
The Candyman bought me that sign. He says it reminds him of how I look when I go a little nutso. It makes me feel better when I eff up some recipe.
7. FOR BREAD LOAVES: sprinkle flour on dough and cut off a grapefruit-size piece with serrated knife. Turn dough in hands to lightly stretch surface, creating a rounded top and a lumpy bottom. Then you can start rolling and elongating the dough with your hands if you want a longer loaf. You can do an oblong loaf that isn’t quite as long and skinny as a baguette. Put dough on pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal; let rest 40 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough or refrigerate it.
*I let the remaining dough sit overnight and made my loaves the next day. STILL really sticky, but definitely easier to work with. Since I don’t have a pizza peel, I used a plastic cutting board liberally dusted with floor.
These are extremely ugly shapes, but as Kim says “bent loaves taste just as good.”
8. Dust dough with flour, slash top with serrated or very sharp knife three times. Slide onto stone. Pour one cup hot water into broiler pan and shut oven quickly to trap steam. Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes. Cool completely. Or not. Eater beware if you go for the steamy hot goodness.
After the last rise and slash. You can see the top loaf goo’d out over the edge of the board. No worries.
My loaves were not nearly as pretty as Kim’s, but for my first try I think they were just fine. And they tasted just as good as Kim’s did that evening on her porch. I ate half of the first loaf before The Candyman got home that night. We ate the other half together. The other loaf was gone by the end of the next night.
WHAT? It’s that good.
For the record, I am NOT a baker. I can make cookies and that’s about it. I was pleasantly surprised at how good these were. It’s messy, true. But it was fun and tasted really freakin’ good.
Bake, enjoy and share with good friends and bottles of wine. It’s how it is meant to be consumed.