Swans Commentary » swans.com December 27, 2010  



No Pain, No Gain


by Jan Baughman




We have reached our 2010 fundraising goal thanks to the last-minute contributions of Richard Brand, John McVey, Marsha Botzer, Karen Moller, Miriam Adams, Michael & Therese Pacheco, Melissa Smith & David Saslav, and Frank Lieser Hill. Many, many thanks to all who have generously supported our efforts. Best wishes for the New Year.



"Without bread all is misery."
—William Cobbett (1763?-1835)


(Swans - December 27, 2010)   The word in English for pain is the word the French use for bread -- with a different pronunciation, bien sûr -- more like "pan" without the "n." The irony that pain equals pain is not lost on this writer who happens to be married to a Frenchman, and anyone who knows a Frenchman or has traveled to France and tasted French bread knows that it is as ubiquitous and as necessary as air and water, but with an amazing flavor and texture.

"Meat! We are going to eat some meat; and what meat! Real game! Still no bread, though."
—Ned Land in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870)

Now, it just so happens that this writer is a respectable chef, known for the best quiche west of Paris, a pretty good cassoulet, an even better coq au vin, and a blanquette de veau to die for. Finish that with a simple salade vinaigrette, un morceau de brie, and what more do you need? Good bread -- without which the meal leaves something to be desired. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, one has a plethora of artisan bakeries and some pretty good boulangeries to choose from, but none meet the high standard.

"How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"
—Julia Child (1912-2004)

An ambitious attempt at baking baguettes sometime in the mid 1990s resulted in a beautiful specimen -- with the flavor and texture of Kleenex. I immediately surrendered, intimidated by all the variables that need careful control, from time and moisture to heat, not to mention intermediate microbiology.

"I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, saleratus, etc., with a deal of grace. I advise you if you don't know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch."
—Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

About 15 years and myriad bread procurement strategies passed by until one day that changed everything -- May 13, 2010, to be precise. A friend had taken a couple of baking classes in San Francisco and asked me if I wanted to sign up for a bread class with her and another friend. Mais oui, I replied, though I had little expectation from a two-hour evening on pita bread and something called "artisan style no-knead bread" than an enjoyable night out with two girlfriends. The class was taught by a very entertaining and engaging Richard Festen, who had worked, like me, in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry but unlike me walked away to attend the California Culinary Academy Baking and Pastry Arts Program, now sharing his knowledge and true passion by teaching classes of 1 to 12 students in a pleasant San Francisco loft.

"I would say to housewives, be not daunted by one failure, nor by twenty. Resolve that you will have good bread, and never cease striving after this result till you have effected it. If persons without brains can accomplish this, why cannot you?"
Housekeeping In Old Virginia, Marion Cabell Tyree ed. (1878)

You will think I exaggerate -- unless you're married to or know a Frenchman, or have traveled to France and tasted French bread -- when I say that those two hours changed my life and cured my pain. I'll share the recipe so that your life can be changed, too. Mr. Festen's bread is based on a technique (whose bandwagon I unfortunately missed) that became a rage in 2006 thanks to a New York Times article by Mark Bittman on a revolutionary no-knead bread developed by one Jim Lahey, who deserves a Nobel Prize for culinary advances. Still think I exaggerate? According to Bittman, "The loaf is incredible, a fine-bakery quality, European-style boule that is produced more easily than by any other technique I've used, and will blow your mind." And what is so ridiculous about this discovery, in the context of all the pain, is that as Bittman puts it, "The method is surprisingly simple -- I think a 4-year-old could master it -- and the results are fantastic."

"Bread is the king of the table and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king. The countries are the soup, the meat, the vegetables, the salad, but bread is king."
—Louis Bromfield (1896-1956)

And the beauty of it is, you don't need to build a brick wood-burning oven, buy a baking stone, spray the loaf with water to get a crunchy crust -- all it takes is a Dutch oven (or cast-iron pot, as I use) to create the perfect environment for the perfect bread. It takes 5 minutes to mix the ingredients, 12 to 18 hours to let them ferment, another 5 minutes to form the boule, which rises for 2 hours then bakes in 45 minutes. Okay, it's not instant gratification, but then, what worthwhile and truly satisfying activity is? The bread lasts a week -- if it isn't already eaten -- without turning to stone like most store-bought varieties. At a minimum, every Friday afternoon I mix the ingredients, and every Saturday morning I bake a perfect loaf. I've added roasted garlic and aged asiago cheese; olives and rosemary; wheat flour; and I conquered microbiology with some San Francisco sourdough starter that produces a wonderful sourdough no-knead bread. The possibilities are endless, the results are amazing, and I've yet to disappoint. I'm not exaggerating. If you don't believe me, just ask the Frenchman, who at the moment is enjoying a bit of pain et fromage.


* * * * *


Artisan Style "No Knead" Bread

Yields 1 large 10-inch round loaf

3 cups unbleached bread flour (14 oz or 400 g)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (1 tablespoon kosher salt)
1/2 teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
1 1/4 cup cool tap water (10 oz or 300 g)
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Corn meal for dusting

Mix flour, salt and yeast in a medium bowl. Mix water and vinegar and add to bowl, mixing until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 1 minute. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at cool room temperature for 12 - 18 hours.

Line a colander or medium sized strainer or bowl with parchment paper and sprinkle with corn meal. Set aside.

Generously dust a work surface with flour and using a dough scraper or spatula, gently coax the dough out in one piece. With well-floured hands, gently nudge and tuck the dough under to form a round ball. Transfer to colander. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or tea towel and let rise for 1-2 hours until doubled in size.

Thirty minutes before the dough is finished rising, place a covered 5-6 quart heavy pot on the lower third shelf of an oven and preheat to 475. If the lid of your pot does not have an oven-safe handle on the lid, remove it before placing in the oven.

Lightly flour the top of your dough, if desired, and use a razor blade to decoratively slash the dough about 1/2 inch deep. Carefully remove the lid from the pot and immediately place the dough, parchment and all, in the pot. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid (be cautious, steam from inside the pot can hurt unprotected hands) and bake 15 minutes more. Remove bread from pot and cool at least two hours before eating.

Happy cooking!


The author wishes to thank Esther Hamm, who invited her to the class, and Richard Festen, who taught it.


For more on bread: FRENCH BREAD: The Baguette Versus Pain de Campagne, Graham Lea, Swans, June 15, 2009.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/jeb224.html
Published December 27, 2010