Why do we make bread at home, particularly these days when there is so much good bread to be found in our local bakeries? Certainly most of us don’t have a brick oven or a way of creating the steam that is necessary to achieving a great crust, so our efforts can’t be as good as a professional baker’s. I’m talking about crusty loaves—boules, baguettes, ficelles, and hard rolls, which fifty years ago you could hardly find anywhere, even in New York City.
That was about the time that Julia was working on the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as we were poring over the final selection of recipes for it, I mentioned that it was a shame that Americans, who at last were mastering French cooking, thanks to Julia, still couldn’t enjoy that essential element of a French meal: an excellent, hard-crusted, golden brown loaf that when broken open revealed a patchwork of holes with shiny interiors and tasted simply of good bread. Nothing was better suited to mop up the last delicious morsels on your plate and a French dinner just wasn’t the same without it. The only solution, I slyly suggested, was for Mastering II to reveal the secrets and give the American cook a recipe that would work.
My idea caught fire. As Julia put it in the introduction to the book, “Until our editor, in her gentle but compelling way, suggested that we really owed it to our readers to include a recipe for French bread, we had no plans at all to tackle it. Two years and some 284 pounds of flour later, we had tried out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find”—and they still hadn’t come up with the real thing. Julia put her husband, Paul, to work on it at first because he had made bread in college, but after 60 loaves (a few of which he mailed to me in New York and they all looked like the twisted arms of an old olive tree) he gave up. So they packed up American flour and American yeast and salt, and set off for France where they made contact with Professor Calvel of the Ecole de Meunière in Paris. And then, as she wrote: “It was like the sun in all its glory suddenly breaking through the shades of gloom.” This epiphany was particularly acute because what they learned seemed to defy most of the tenets of bread making they had previously encountered: Calvel’s dough was supposed to be soft and sticky, almost too tacky to be handled, and it was left to rise in a cool spot, not warm, for many hours. The proper shaping of the loaves was a crucial factor, as Julia wrote me in a postcard from Paris, not mentioning that they still had to find a way to simulate the baker’s wood-burning oven and to come up with a device to get that whoosh of steam so essential to the crusting of the loaves. But Paul worked out those technicalities (they were always a great team) and soon Julia was ready with a 20-page recipe for Plain French Bread.
Needless to say, I became addicted to making my own baguettes at home. Initially I used an asbestos plate, as recommended by Paul, as a substitute for the hot floor of a French oven, but after asbestos was condemned I lined my oven shelf with tiles. I also found an old, pre-electric iron that was perfect for heating up on my gas flame on top of the stove. When it had turned red hot and after I’d coaxed the long loaves onto the oven tiles with the help of an improvised baker’s paddle, I would pick up the hot iron with tongs, plop it quickly into a pan of water on the oven floor, and slam the oven door shut. You could hear the whoosh of steam inside. If there were children around, they always seemed relieved once I had performed this feat, and soon they were eager to get into the act.
I have long believed that if you want children to be interested in cooking, start making yeast breads together. They feel something so magical as the dough changes from a sticky mess under their hands to a smooth and bouncy mass that holds together. And it’s all in the kneading. Then they put the dough back in its bowl, cover it, and let it take a rest. When they return some time later and remove the covering, the dough has doubled or tripled in volume, usually trembling at the brim of the bowl. Now comes the part they love best: punching the dough ruthlessly down again. They also love the shaping and are always surprised at how when it comes out of the oven its shape has changed. It has a mind of its own.
So I confess to having an ambivalent feeling when I read in the fall of 2006 that Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan had come up with a miraculous way of making the perfect, authentic country loaf that was going to revolutionize bread making. The attraction for home cooks was that is was easy, required no kneading, and that it was baked in a heavy, very hot Le Creuset-like cooking pot which gave it a great crust and those holes that are the pride of every baker. All it took was time—most of it waiting time—and the ability to handle very wet dough, which didn’t need kneading. Mark Bittman writing in the food section of The New York Times thought the results fantastic and Jeffrey Steingarten, an exacting cook, thought it the best country loaf he had ever made (after a little tinkering, of course) and wrote it up for Vogue.
I tried it a couple of times and was delighted with the taste and the texture of the round country loaf, although some of the holes seemed excessive in size so if slices were used for a sandwich bits of the filling might drop out. Recently I tried again, this time experimenting to see if I dropped a fairly long portion of the moist dough into a foot-long Le Creuset pan I had for making pate, I would get something that resembled a baguette. It was pretty good, but it didn’t really look like a baguette, with its handsome slashes, but like one of Paul’s olive tree branches, only plumper.
The truth is I missed the kneading. For me a good deal of the pleasure of making bread is tactile—kneading the dough gently at first so that it doesn’t stick to my work surface, scraping it off the board, flouring, folding, and continuing to knead rhythmically until my hands tell me it is ready. The dough gradually loses its tackiness and its resistance and comes alive under my palms, springing back at me when I press my thumb into it to see if it has been kneaded enough. My step-daughter tells me I become like a little girl I am enjoying it so much. And Julia used to say that hand-beating and kneading were good for our upper arm muscles. But this tactile sense also tells me when I have added enough flour and when the dough is just cohesive enough to roll out into the baguette shape. After it has had its final rise, then comes the slashing of the loaf, a procedure that takes some practice to master. With the revolutionary no-knead method, on the other hand, the dough is so moist that all you can do is just plop it into the hot pot and slap on the lid.
My objection is not entirely sentimental. Flours vary in their water content, making it hard to rely on precise measurements. Recently I botched a batch because the dough was too wet when it went into the pan, and although it crusted well, the interior remained damp. Had I been handling the dough, I would have known this and worked in considerably more flour.
But I did absorb a valuable lesson: You achieve a better-tasting bread if you use less yeast and allow the dough a long, slow rise. So now I’m playing with these findings and making a better baguette. But I haven’t stopped kneading.