Ready for a game of social-distancing bingo? Some things to put on the board:
- Went to virtual happy hour
- Trimmed own bangs
- “Tiger King,” whoa crazy
- Forgot what day of the week it was
- Pet/child cameo during Zoom meeting
- TP scavenger hunt
- Baked bread
Especially the last one. Often seen as the final, intimidating frontier of baking, bread is now becoming our national project. It suits the moment: a satisfying thing to do while spending a lot of time at home, and useful when we are minimizing trips to the store. Every other image on social media seems to be of someone’s home-baked loaf that could have cost $17 at a fancy French boulangerie. People are making their own sourdough starters and giving them hipster-baby names like Myron and Hazel; I’m particularly enjoying the puntastic monikers, a la Crust Fund Baby and Dough-nald J. Trump. Groups are coming together across the country and around the world to bake loaves together/apart using the same recipe, and microbiologists and passionate side-bakers are posting helpful, gorgeously nerdy threads on Twitter.
Sudeep Agarwala, a biologist and yeast expert, offers one that begins: “Friends, I learned last night over Zoom drinks that ya’ll’re baking so much that there’s a shortage of yeast?! I, your local frumpy yeast geneticist have come here to tell you this: THERE IS NEVER A SHORTAGE OF YEAST. Here’s where I’m a viking.” Instruction follows. And if you’ve heard of Seamus Blackley as the Father of the Xbox, it’s time you get to know him in his true form, the Progenitor of the Loaves, sourcing wild yeast from ancient Egyptian ceramics and beneath a tree at the edge of a barley field.
As a result of all this sudden baking, flour and yeast have become hot commodities. Just a few days ago, Vermont-based King Arthur Flour had both available by mail order, limit two per person. At the time of writing, they are sold out. One particularly smart group-sourdough effort, from baker extraordinaire Andrew Janjigian at Cook’s Illustrated, acknowledges the preciousness of flour, showing us how to create our own starters using just a tiny amount. Best yet, it involves a pun! Find his “quarantinystarter” instructions here or on his Instagram account.
But though sourdough may be the trend of today, even if you get started this very minute, you won’t be sinking your teeth into that crisp crust for a while. It’s a process. So I’ll remind you of the bread-baking trend of a few yesterdays ago: the no-knead loaf. It’s as hands-off as getting started with sourdough is hands-on, and you’ll be slathering butter on a warm slice within a day. I find kneading a lovely, tactile, meditative thing to do, but sometimes I also just want to eat some bread without thinking terribly hard about it. Whatever your method, at the end of it all, you still get to hear the most beautiful music in the world: the sighing and crackling of a freshly baked loaf as it cools.
I’ve been making this pane integrale from Jim Lahey, the founder of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery, since his cookbook “My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method” came out in 2009. That’s countless loaves, each as delicious as the last. It has the right amount of whole-wheat flour to make it taste a little complex, but not so much that it feels like it’s trying to be heart-healthy or wholesome or anything other than great bread. When I set a loaf on the breakfast table with butter and jam, houseguests always say they feel like they’re staying at a B&B. Maybe that’s the trick here: to make ourselves feel like we’re staying at B&Bs of our own devising, to spoil ourselves in practical ways.
Writing this I’ve been thinking of my grandfather, who grew up poor and put himself through medical school working as a soda jerk. (Tuition was … different in those days, I guess?) No matter how much food was on the table, no matter how many decades passed, he never stopped pushing bread on us, offering the basket again and again. It was the thing that would make us full. Someone recently told me about a friend whose family lived through the German occupation of Denmark. He is hoarding coffee and chocolate now: They are good to barter with, he explains.
Epigenetics, take the wheel. For some, frugality comes baked in. But over these past few decades, America has let things slide, with food waste making up 30 to 40 percent of the total food supply. Sheltering in place is not the right remedy for a wasteful society, but maybe a less wasteful society is one useful byproduct of sheltering in place.
If nothing else good comes of this, let us emerge a nation of bread bakers, stock makers, picklers and fermenters. Let us emerge better cooks who value the scraps, the rinds, the end pieces, the bones. Let us create countless sourdough babies, and name them affectionately, and tend them with care, and divide them and share them among strangers and friends. This bread will connect us. This bread will make us full.
Makes 1 loaf
2 1/4 cups (300 grams) bread flour
r3/4 cup (100 grams) whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspons (8 grams) salt
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) instant or other active dry yeast
1 1/3 cups (300 grams) cool (55 to 65 degrees) water
Additional flour for dusting
1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.
2. When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Using lightly floured hands, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.
3. Place a clean tea towel on your work surface and generously dust it with flour. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. Dust the top lightly with flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.
4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees, with a rack positioned in the lower third. Place a covered 4 1/2-5 1/2-quart heavy pot in the center of the rack. (I use a Dutch oven and remove the knob from the lid, just to make sure it doesn’t melt. I then plug the hole with aluminum foil.)
5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the (very hot!) preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel and quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.
6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly.
Adapted from “My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method,” by Jim Lahey (Pictured: country-style bread at BirchTree Bread Company in Worcester. Photo by Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe.)
Other things to try
- The methods and recipes in this helpful sourdough story from a few years back.
- This easy, classic white sandwich bread from King Arthur Flour, for those with particular children (me).
- This Irish brown bread, for when you can’t find yeast.
- This cornbread, for when you can’t find flour either.
- Question of the day: Were you a bread baker before coronavirus? Have you started baking bread since? Tell me about your experience.
Thinking of you, good people.