Every so often a recipe crosses my path that is too good to keep to myself. If it's straightforward to prepare and success follows, I spread the word to food-loving friends from Boston to California. Which is exactly what happened recently after I tasted a memorable rustic bread at my sister-in-law Ruth's home in Wisconsin.
With just four ingredients – flour, water, salt, and a measly 1/4 teaspoon of yeast – it could certainly be classified as basic. But it was also remarkable for its flavor, textures, and the unusual method used to make it. Moist and chewy inside with a crisp crust that shattered when I bit into it, the bread reminded me of the best Italian and French loaves I've bought from big-city bakeries. Only this creation came from my sister-in-law's oven, her Dutch oven to be precise.
When Ruth was ready to make this loaf, I kept her company in the kitchen as she measured the ingredients into a bowl. Then I watched as she mixed them all together to form a shaggy mass that did not appear to have a promising future. Unlike most bread doughs, which are kneaded till satiny, this dough was neither smooth to the touch nor kneaded. In fact, it was stickier than any dough either of us had ever handled.
Although tempted to add more flour and yeast, we resisted the urge to obey years of bread-baking instincts and faithfully followed the remaining directions. We let the dough rise overnight as instructed. Then we formed it into a ball, waited while it rose again, and baked it inside a steaming-hot Dutch oven.
When we lifted the lid 30 minutes later, we were amazed to see a gorgeous, golden round loaf sporting professional looking splits across the crown.
In another 10 minutes, we pulled the boule from the oven and listened to the crust crackle as it cooled on the counter.
Since then, I've admittedly gone a bit daft over this no-knead bread and tell anyone who will listen about it. I bake it twice weekly so our supply doesn't disappear. I give slices slathered with butter to my neighbors, my hairdresser, and our favorite waitresses. I bring along a loaf whenever friends invite me and my husband over for a meal.
Surprisingly, the last time we introduced dinner guests to this bread, the evening led to my solving a mystery. A couple of years ago, someone had sent me an article from The New York Times about a revolutionary way to make bread. I found the article intriguing enough to hold onto but I never made the bread because my friend had inadvertently omitted the recipe. Time passed and I forgot about it.
When my guests that night asked how I made the bread, I mentioned that my sister-in-law had given me the recipe and that she, in turn, had gotten it from a friend. Beyond that, Ruth couldn't trace its provenance.
Several days later, one of the women told me she had spotted a similar recipe in a kitchenware catalog. When I saw the catalog, it left no doubt the recipes were one and the same with some minor modifications. And there at the recipe's end was a credit to an article by Mark Bittman in The New York Times. I knew immediately that this article was the very one I'd saved.
Out of curiosity, I called my sister-in-law's friend to learn where she'd obtained her recipe. I discovered it came from her daughter, who had clipped it from The New York Times.
I have now heard of bakers who toss Parmesan cheese or chopped olives into the dough and who substitute different flours for the all-purpose kind. However, I've remained loyal to the simplicity of the original loaf. That keeps it versatile for everything from breakfast toast to bread pudding with lunch sandwiches in between.
Although I lean more toward spontaneous rather than preplanned baking, I have no problem remembering before going to bed to stir together the recipe's four ingredients.
I also have no problem sleeping while the yeast does its work. Being patient seems a small price to pay for one of the best breads ever to come from my kitchen.