I'm a year behind the times on this, but I just discovered the bread that buzzed around the food blogosphere a year ago. If you were paying attention then there's no need to read any further, but if you weren't and you're a fan of those overpriced loaves with the spongy interior and the crispy chewy crust, then read on. It's remarkably easy to make and the results are very good indeed, particularly considering my long and wretchedly poor history of bread making. I spent years trying various methods and recipes and almost invariably coming up with barely edible results. I'm not going to quite call this recipe fool-proof, but it's certainly fool-resistant.
I've heard that America's Test Kitchen's latest issue has their variation on the recipe (with a little bit of kneading involved), but I used the original straight from the November 8, 2006 New York Times. I should have done by usual recipe search because I would have discovered the general consensus that the 1 5/8 cups of water to 3 cups bread flour ratio called for is a little high. I'll be using 1 1/2 cups water next time (and probably some whole wheat or rye flour for some extra flavor).
I started by mixing the flour and water along with 1/4 t instant yeast and up to nearly a tablespoon of salt in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 18 hours at 70 degrees. My room temperature is rather higher than that so I could probably have gotten away with a few hours less, but going the full 18 hours turned out fine.
Because I had used the full 1 5/8 water on a rather humid day, my dough was a wet sticky mess. I've worked with ciabatta dough before so I had enough experience with loose doughs to muddle through, but the revised recipe should be easier to work with. I folded the dough over itself as best I could, let it rest, covered, for 15 minutes and then attempted to form it into a ball and move it onto a floured towel. Then I sprinkled it with cornmeal, covered it again and let it sit for a couple more hours to double in size.
The second trick to the recipe, along with letting the dough distribute and align its proteins itself over time, is to cook it in a covered pot in the oven to keep in the steam. My only suitably sized pot has a non-stick coating which would have given off toxic fumes during the half hour pre-heat so it was out of the question. However, I do have a clay cooker that looked like it would work. I put it in the oven and pre-heated for a half hour at 450 degrees. (much of the discussion from last year recommends shorter baking times at higher temperatures. I'll mess with that after I experiment with other flours.)
After the dough rose I had some difficulty putting it into the hot clay cooker as it stuck to the towel quite badly. Next time, I'll try using a plastic cutting board as a base instead. I finally coaxed it in, put the cover back on and baked for a half hour. Then I removed the cover and baked another 15 minutes to brown and crisp the crust. Here's the results:
As you can see, it could probably have used another five minutes or so in the oven to deepen the browning, but it's still a golden brown lovely and the grain inside has plenty of large holes. The flavor is surprisingly nice for an all white-flour loaf. The inside was still a little moist so I'll have to tweak it a bit more as I experiment, (and here's a link to a follow-up article with some tweak results) but this is the sort of results I was looking for but never got when I first started home baking years ago. I'm definitely looking forward to picking up the hobby again and trying out different variations. If you've found baking intimidating, you ought to give it a try too.