I have made a lot of bread in my life. Thousands of loaves. I’m not kidding. Back in the days of yore, when I was relegated to the bakery, since ‘women can’t be line cooks’ (more on that saga some other time), I made forty to sixty loaves of bread a week. It adds up. Apparently, women could go down to the basement and tool around with less important tasks, such as tending to the staff of life and making French pastries (at least there was a beautiful view of a mountain stream from the window down there.) Hey, I also did all the bookkeeping, bill paying, scheduling, menu planning, and a whole lot of etcetera. Baking bread and pastry were kind of enjoyable sidelines.
Our “country kitchen” roadside restaurant produced loaves for sandwiches and toast and also offered them for sale to our customers at the front of the restaurant. These were old-fashioned American-style country loaves. There was no artisanal anything back then, and that included European style crusty loaves. Daniel Leader was at the forefront of the artisanal bread baking movement with his Bread Alone bakery down the road in Boiceville, New York, but that was later. You might have been able to find a sad, flabby baguette (not yet labeled as such, just “French bread”) in a market, but it was a gloomy day when you had to eat such a specimen with good wine and food made with care. Meanwhile, our customers were treated to “artisanal” vegetables grown in our large garden (in summer), local eggs, and homemade yogurt made from local milk, and our own version of artisanal bread. In other words, we were hippies.
As the restaurant expanded year by year with more seating and better food, the background music was always our beautiful, wholesome bread—sesame whole wheat, “country” white, golden corn meal, sweet, eggy anise seed loaves, and onion dill bread. God help me, but if you ask me to make, smell, or eat any part of a loaf of onion dill bread ever, ever again, I’m not sure I can be responsible for my actions. But oh, how the customers loved their C.O.D. (cottage cheese onion dill). Enough about that.
We mixed the loaves in a bowl that would easily accommodate a family with small children. It had an enormous dough hook, which complained and whined insistently as it kneaded the dough. I developed strong biceps hauling that dough out of the bowl, flopping it onto the counter, and shaping it into loaves and rolls.
Fast forward to now: the era of no-knead bread. And let me tell you, I am all for it. I am baking a loaf of Polish rye as I write this. I even resurrected a sourdough starter for it. Let’s just say it is good, very, very good. The loaves I make at home all winter long are inspired by Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method.. He explains, with the help of the lovable ‘curious cook’ Harold McGee, why this method works so well. Read the full article about this method by Mr. McGee in the New York Times .
The kind of bread we baked in our restaurant (and the bread baked in the seventies and eighties) was “modeled on English pan loaves, with a tight, even, fine-grained interior ideal for tidy sandwiches.” The no-knead dough is much wetter, virtually impossible to knead in the traditional way, and it produces a moist interior with uneven, sometimes large, pockets of air. The gluten network develops over a much longer time—eight hours or longer—than the traditional 2-hour rise of those pre-artisanal loaves we made in our restaurant.
In his book, Mr. Lahey explains more via Harold McGee:
“The long slow rise brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile when there is a sufficient quantity of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.”
If you are fiddling around with your own recipes, look at the New York Times article for some advice on proportions. You need to balance the wet/dry ratio to be successful, but it is not hard. Oh, and get yourself a scale, and use it when you bake bread (or focaccia.) I meant to write about THAT in this post, but I have gone on way too long already. Lesson over.
Now, make this focaccia, inspired by Jim Lahey’s fruit focaccia. Note his trick with coating the almonds with a small amount of liquid (he used water, I used vanilla) to get the sugar coating to stick to the almonds. Brilliant.
Overnight pear focaccia
Makes one 9 X 13-inch focaccia
I love that this dough can be made the night before so you can wake up on a Sunday morning and have it ready a few hours later without much fuss. Winter is a great time to bring family members and other hangers-on together for breakfast, Super Bowl or no Super Bowl. In fact, grab the male members of the household this Sunday while you can, before your house becomes a chili-pizza-eating, beer-slugging, screaming mecca of doom, at least for those who want to retreat from all the madness. Mine like nothing better than a Sunday morning sleep-in, so while they are sawing logs, the early riser (moi) can have this focaccia ready for a pleasant mid-morning feast.
You could vary the dried fruits to include your favorites and you could substitute apples for the pears. You may notice that the recipe does not require much yeast—a testament to the fact that many recipes for bread call for more than is needed, lending an over-yeasty taste in the bargain. Instant dry yeast is a special strain that can be mixed straight into the flour, but if you are using ‘regular’ active dry yeast, add it to the liquid and let it hydrate and soften for 5 minutes before incorporating it into the dough.
For the dough:
1/2 cup (65g) raisins
1/2 cup (75g) dried fruit such as apricots, cherries, or prunes, cut in 1/4-inch dice
About 1/2 cup hot apple cider, water or tea
2 cups (250g) bread or all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (3g) instant dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon (3g) salt
3 tablespoons (43g) soft, unsalted butter plus a little for the baking pan
3 tablespoons (65g) honey
1. Combine the raisins and diced fruit in a small bowl. Add the hot cider, tea or water to cover. Let stand until tepid, about 20 minutes. Drain and reserve the liquid.
2. Stir the flour, yeast and salt together in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the drained fruit to coat it evenly with flour.
3. Measure the reserved soaking liquid from the fruit to make 1/3 cup (add additional liquid if necessary.) Add it to the dough with the egg and honey. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Scrape the dough into a large, clean bowl and enclose the bowl in a plastic bag. Let rise at room temperature overnight (8 to 12 hours).
For the topping
1/2 cup (45g) sliced almonds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons (38g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (1g) cinnamon
3 to 4 pears (I used bosc and did not peel them, for a rustic effect)
1.Toss the almonds with the vanilla. Add the sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat the almonds with sugar.
2. Core and slice the pears into 1/4-inch thick slices.
To assemble and bake the foccacia
1. Half an hour before the end of the rising time, set a rack in the middle position of the oven and set the oven temperature at 400 degrees F.
Butter a 9 by 13-inch baking pan.
2. Scrape the dough into the pan in one piece. Wet your hands (to keep them from sticking to the dough) and stretch and press the dough evenly into the pan. Place the pears in an overlapping pattern to cover the dough. Sprinkle the almond topping over the pears. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
3. Bake the focaccia for 35 to 45 minutes, until the edges are nicely browned and the pears are soft. Cut in slices and serve warm or at room temperature.
Soak the dried fruit in hot liquid to reconstitute it in some cider, water, wine, or fragrant tea like earl grey, or Kusmi bouquet de fleurs.
Get in the habit of weighing ingredients when you bake. You will have better results.
Mix the drained fruit with the flour to distribute it evenly. Reserve the liquid to add to the dough.
Add the liquid ingredients to the flour/fruit. Stir well; no special mixer required!
It looks a lot like thick chocolate chip cookie dough. Transfer it to a clean bowl and enclose the whole bowl in a plastic bag. Leave it to rise overnight at room temperature.
The dough has risen; it is approximately double its original size.
To obtain pretty, even slices, cut pear in half. Place melon baller over the core and press straight all the way down into the pear. Then twist and remove the core. Place the pear with the flat side down and cut into 1/4-inch slices.
Wet your hands to keep them from sticking to the dough and push and stretch the dough into the bottom of the pan. Arrange the pear slices on top and sprinkle with the almond topping. Bake.