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A novel blend of some well known techniques - with great results
on 8 November 2009
There's been a lot of buzz about Jim Lahey's techniques over the last couple of years. There's no doubt that he's a dedicated baker, and that his approach is worth considering; not least because it's a set of simple rules that will give more consistent results, and good results, than a novice baker can hope to achieve without a lot of effort, practice, and guidance.
The book itself breaks down into three parts: the first section is the usual discussion of ingredients and inspirations, backed with the core no-knead recipe, with plenty of photographs of the stages to follow. The second part is a series of chapters with different bread recipes, largely based around a loose connection with Italian bread baking, but as applied to the New York market - lots of sandwich breads, for instance, and "white pizza". The final part is a series of non-bread recipes to make American-style deli sandwiches. In some ways, this is the part of the book I like the best, although it's not what you'd expect to find in here from the title or cover.
The central matter is the famous no knead recipe. This turns out to be a combination of several well known "tricks". The first is that, as Dan Lepard has espoused for years, a well mixed dough will develop its gluten given time, without kneading, although Lepard prefers to give short kneads over an extended rising period. Lahey goes for a very highly hydrated dough; most of his recipes are 75% (baker's percentage), whereas most domestic bread recipes are 60 - 65%. High hydration is desirable, as it gives a well textured end result, but a very wet dough is extremely hard to handle. Given that handling of the dough is kept to an absolute minimum, this shouldn't be a problem for the novice.
The next trick is an extended rising time, between 18 and 24 hours for most recipes. This allows more flavour to develop. Instead of giving a vague test like watching for doubling of the dough, or the time taken for a thumb dent to refill, Lahey's test is to watch for bubble on the surface and a slight change of colouration of the dough: much easier to use to stop at the ideal time. The next stage is tricky, shaping the loaf, as the dough is very loose and wet, but it works.
The final trick is to bake in a pre-heated cast iron pot - a dutch oven, in American terms, but a casserole works fine. In fact, a ceramic casserole works just as well, but cast iron is easier to handle. The effect is to control humidity to give a better quality finish to the crust, something that is very hard to achieve without using a commercial bread oven (or hand built brick oven). If your casserole has a plastic knob on the lid, it WILL burn at Lahey's baking temperatures, and the smell isn't pleasant (and is somewhat dangerous). I would strongly advise using a pot with a metal knob/handle if at all possible, or simply removing your plastic knob.
All in all, this book is a good buy for bread bakers, novice and experienced alike. The basic technique is the closest to fool-proof that I have ever come across, and the chapters of recipes are good - I particularly enjoyed the Pan co'Santi (walnut bread), and the sandwich recipes are excellent. But these are well known techniques, just used in an entirely novel way. I'd give it 4.5 stars if that were possible...