I, celiac, bake a great deal of gluten-filled bread. I bake bread at least three times a week. Right now I have cinnamon-raisin pinwheel bread in the oven , at the request of Little. Two loaves of whole-wheat bread are in the freezer, with a half loaf of the same in the bread basket. I will probably bake bread again tomorrow. The bread I bake most often is the classic white boule, pictured above. It is the only bread recipe I have committed to memory. It always works, it is fast and easy and I can put it together even if I am tired and it is 10:30 at night and I realize that we are almost out of bread.
A bit more than three years ago, I was in Sunnyside Library with the whole family one Saturday and the spouse had the children with him so that I was free to roam the adult books on my own. (It was a thrill!) I happened upon this book at the end of an aisle: Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads by Nancy Baggett. The concept is that you mix up the dough, let it sit for about 12 hours or more, and all the little yeast hoolies do the kneading for you. Intrigued, I took the book out and tried out Crusty White Peasant-Style Pot Bread.
It was fabulous. I renewed that book three times for three weeks each and tried out one or two recipes each week. At that time my celiac disease had not yet been diagnosed so we all chewed our way blissfully through loaf after delicious loaf. Baguettes, cheddar and chiles bread, cinnamon-raisin swirl, yeasted cornbread, rye, pale ale pot boule….oh yum. At the end of all my library renewals I went out and bought the book. It has since been well-used. The pages are falling out of the binding and marked with grease and flour and my coffee cup.
I decided to bake almost all our bread from that point on. We still buy factory whole wheat for the correctly squishy grilled cheese sandwich, and sometimes we get crumpets or English muffins. I kept baking even after I found out I could not eat gluten.
It is unbelievably cheap to bake your own bread. I buy the ten-kilo bag of flour at Costco for $7.65 and it lasts for about a month of baking. I use about $5 worth of whole wheat flour during that month too. In that period I make between 20 and 30 loaves of bread.
It is so much fun deciding which kind to bake, and by now everyone has favourites so I am happy to take requests. I just love baking, and it doesn’t matter to me if I can’t eat the product. Last year I decided to bake my way systematically through the whole book just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything good. At the end, the classic white boule was still the original and best. Nancy Baggett’s recipes are usually for one loaf and I almost always double them so as to able to keep the rapacious hordes satisfied.
Here’s the recipe for two boules: I use completely average Canadian grocery-store ingredients: Redpath sugar, Sifto salt, Fleischmann’s yeast. In the winter, the water that comes out of my Ottawa taps is almost in ice-cube form already.
8 cups white flour
2 tsp white sugar
1 tbsp plus one tsp (or 4 tsp) salt
1 1/2 tsp quick-acting or breadmaking yeast (f you want to bake the same day, double the yeast to 1 tbsp)
4 cups ice water
2 large mixing bowls
Measuring spoons and cups
One wooden spoon or Danish dough whisk
2 Dutch ovens (cast-iron ovenproof pots)
Mix dry ingredients together in a very large bowl. Little likes helping me measure and mix. I use a Danish dough whisk to combine the ingredients. I got three for Christmas one year after this bread-baking mania began. Slosh in the cold water and mix for quite a long time until all ingredients are combined and it looks wet and gluey with no traces of flour. No kneading: just mixing.
When I was first starting out with this book, I couldn’t figure out why my dough was always way drier than that pictured in the book. But then I remembered that Canadian flour has more gluten than American flour and just added a bit more water to make things squishier. If you have made bread before using a more conventional recipe, the dough will seem quite wet and soft. Go with it and do not fret.
Divide the dough and put one portion of it in another bowl to rise. I have one bowl larger than the other, so I divide them unevenly. This works fine since my Dutch ovens are not the same size either. So now you have two bowls of dough. In every recipe Nancy Baggett advises covering the bowl with plastic wrap, but I am a professional loather of plastic wrap. What a silly, one-use object, and especially irritating if it sticks to itself and not the bowl. I went out and bought silicone airtight lids, which go through the dishwasher and can be used in the fridge or microwave as well.
If I want to bake in the afternoon, I mix up the bread in the morning and bake 3-4 hours later. If I’m not in a rush, I either mix the bread in the morning and bake it in the evening, or I mix it up after supper and bake the next morning or whenever that day works out. One can delay baking by putting the bowls in a cold place until one is ready. Whatever you decide, when the bread is nearing the top of the bowl or indeed is pushing the lid up, take a spatula and fold the dough in towards the middle of the bowl while rotating it. This organizes the gluten (hey, I can’t eat gluten, but I can organize it) for baking. Leave for about an hour, depending on the warmth of the room, and then turn on the oven to 450° F (235° C). Put two cast-iron pots (the pots need to have lids, but leave the lids out of the oven for this first phase) into the oven when you turn it on. Have your oven mitts at the ready.
When the oven is hot, remove one pot and dump the contents of one bowl into it. Don’t worry if it looks a little messy; you are doing artisanal baking after all. Spritz water onto the top of the loaf, put the lid on and put the pot back in the oven. Repeat with the other pot. The water creates steam inside your little Dutch oven and that steam gives you the lovely crust. Turn the oven down to 425° F (220° C) and set the timer for 50 minutes (maybe check after 45 minutes if you are doing this for the first time). The loaves should look solid but a bit pale at this point. Take the lids off the pots, set the timer for five minutes, and bake the loaves lid-free for that time. Remove the bread when it is browned and crisp.
I usually find that the loaves come right out when I tip the pots over onto the cooling rack. Let cool. Often the teenager comes home from school 15 minutes after baking is over and he has at the fresh warm bread for his snack. The other loaf I put in the freezer for another day.
The gorgeous crackling noise that the bread makes as it cools is known as singing.