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Review Wed Mar 04 2009
One of my colleague is a venerable veteran of bread making, with more than 20 years under his belt, during which time, rumor goes, he hasn't bought a single loaf of bread. Since I discovered the fun of bread making (and also the fact that he was a closet bread maker), we've been spending good ten minutes every Monday morning discussing what we'd done in the bread department in the preceding weekend. And we steal a few minutes here and there during the week, too, talking about bread. During a recent chat, he told me about an improbable bread recipe he saw on PBS. He called it "Jacques Pépin's pot bread."
"I just don't see how it can be any good," my colleagues added, "it defies all that I know about bread."
Curious, I asked him for the recipe. When it arrived in my inbox, it literally had three lines, including the ingredients. Line 1: In a large pot, mix tepid water, flour, salt and yeast and stir. Line 2: Let rise at room temperature for an hour and a half. Stir again and stick it in the fridge overnight, covered. Line 3: Bake it at 450 degrees.
I had to agree with my colleague. There was no way that this bread would have any texture. As far as my budding knowledge in bread making goes, mixing the salt with the yeast water at the beginning is a no-no; salt inhibits the yeast metabolism. I couldn't imagine not kneading the bread, either; without kneading, the bread cannot develop the gluten structure that creates and sustains the shape of the loaf.
So, when I made the bread, I mostly did it for the perverse entertainment value of it. As I stirred the dough for the first time, my conviction--that this bread will be a flop--grew only stronger. The dough was wetter than many, but stirring clearly wasn't enough to incorporate everything into a smooth dough that I'd become accustomed to. The dough didn't seem to have improved much when I gave it another stir before sliding it into the fridge for the overnight rise. And it still didn't look much better when I took it out the next day. Sure, it had risen a fair amount, but there were a handful of dry-looking patches on the surface; the bubbles just under the surface didn't look very uniform; and worst of all, it didn't have the seductive, baby's-bottom silkiness that successful bread doughs seemed to have. Ah well, I thought, as I pushed the pot (well, a Pyrex, since I didn't have an oven-resistant Calphalon that Jacques used) into the oven. At least the neighborhood birds will be well fed and happy.
Wrong! I still don't know why, but the recipe works beautifully. Forty minutes later, the thing actually looked and smelled like bread. All the dry patches had magically disappeared. With big air holes just under the top crust and heavier crumbs toward the bottom, the bread is similar to those rustic Italian bread some restaurants serve. It was on the salty side, but with cultured butter slathered on, it was great. If someone had served me that bread and told me that the bread was never kneaded, I wouldn't have believed it. It was bread, nothing less.
I don't know if I'd bake Jacques' pot bread again, though. The problem? Without the non-stick, oven-proof goodness of a high-end Calphalon, the bread gets inseparable from the container. It clings to the pot like it's found a long-lost mother. It took my sturdy husband a good ten minutes of vigorous pounding, shaking and shoving to get the bread out of the Pyrex. Because the dough is mixed right in the pot, it cannot be pre-greased, which would make it easier to get the bread off. When I finally buy a larger cast iron pan (I only have a tiny 6-inch cutie), maybe I'll go back to try this no-knead bread again. Until then, I'll stick with the good old knead n' bake method.