My eldest daughter is one of my very favorite people in the world. Really, that’s not just a parent talking: The child has an innate happiness, a fullness of heart, and a spontaneous grace that simply disarms everyone she meets. Like her good looks, I take very little credit for any of that, but I cannot abdicate her Mr Hyde self: Too little sleep, too much Girl Drama, or – the root of our latest falling out – what she deems to be my unreasonable academic expectations, and my little Botticelli turns cantankerous, obstinate, and generally behaves like an Olympian pain in the tuckus.
Of course, this inevitably leads to conflict, because I, too, have a skull wall of cinder block and the pliability of rock candy. Conflict, per my decree that her math grades had fallen below the bar, and so she and I took turns instigating all manner of slammed doors, canceled play dates, and a palpable cloud of pissed off-ness that settled over our little fur-family tree like fog invading the Golden Gates… Unfortunately, that Miss M and I will never squabble remains more delusion than hope, and so I set out to make up with her instead, and this is what I learned: There is no better splint for fractured family love than the baking together of fresh bread. The weighing of flour, the kneading of dough, the floury mess, even the inevitable fart-jokes about yeast… all that is good and right, but mostly – more so, even, than the warmth of the bread itself – it’s the hours spent together, on a task having nothing to do with anything else in the world, the simple, profound work of turning flour and water into food.
The happy side effect, because Miss M and I are not bakers, was that we did a bit of reading, and came across what Michael Ruhlman calls the Dutch Oven Method: A lean bread dough, shaped into a boule, which is then proofed and baked in a Dutch oven. There seems to be some debate around the history of this innovation: Left Coasters will swear it all began with Tartine, but the first reference I found comes from Jim Lahey and his Sullivan Street Bakery, courtesy of this article in the NY Times. It’s so simple and obvious (once you think about it), almost medieval in its technology, that I can’t believe it hasn’t been around for, literally, hundreds of years… Regardless, the important point is this: For the typical home cook, we’re talking about nothing less than Bread Revolution, because this disarmingly simple trick produced the finest crust of bread that I have ever baked, the sort of crust – crispy, crunchy, chewy, and, well, crusty all at once – that makes grown Frenchman cry. And, above all, it made my daughter smile, which is enough, right?
So the next time you need to make up with someone you love, or even if you don’t, please make this bread.
Dutch Oven Boule (Adapted from M Ruhlman’s “Ratio”)
- Mix 4C bread flour with 2t yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer (I’ve even done the full cheater version, with rapid -rise yeast and AP flour, and it was still an exceptional loaf).
- Pour 1.5C warm water over the dry ingredients and sprinkle a packet (2 1/4t) active dry yeast, or the cake-yeast equivalent over the top.
- Knead with a dough hook for about 10 minutes (it could be 8; my KitchenAid, for whatever reasons, requires more like 12), until smooth and elastic: You should be able to stretch a small piece of dough to the point of translucency.
- Remove the bowl from the stand, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size (probably 2 hours or so).
- Punch the dough down, kneading by hand on a lightly floured surface, taking care to work all the gas bubbles out. Form a boule, or flattened ball, by pulling and pushing on the dough in a circular motion.
- Place the boule inside a Dutch oven coated with olive oil, cover with a damp kitchen towel, and leave to proof until doubled in size again (ideally, this would be overnight in the fridge, but need not be; if you do it in the fridge, be sure to take it out at least 2 hours before baking, and check that it doesn’t over-rise). Preheat your oven to 450F.
- Brush the loaf with olive oil, sprinkle liberally with course salt, and put the top on the Dutch oven. Bake for about 30 minutes with the top on.
- Remove the top, and bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown and looks like the bread of your dreams. Remove from the oven, carefully turn the loaf out of the Dutch oven (or it will keep cooking the underside), let it set (if you can), and enjoy.