(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking

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There’s something very satisfying about making your own bread…when it works. My sole childhood memory of my mother baking bread was during one of the numerous bakery strikes that happened in the 1970s in the UK. Sadly, her effort was pretty unpalatable. As for me and Mrs CookWithNoName, we’ve had quite a few disappointing attempts between us. However we’ve both found saviours espousing very different baking techniques and from very different backgrounds.

Mrs CWNN has had success with the methods of the English-based Breton baker Richard Bertinet. He favours the French “slap and fold” method of kneading. His book Dough is excellent and comes with a short DVD which you can watch on YouTube. (The kneading demonstration starts at around 4.30.) This produced a great loaf and only one complaint – from our neighbour upstairs, annoyed about the noise of the slapping on a Saturday morning.

Bertinet is a classically trained artisan baker and his books demonstrate a great variety of loaves. His kneading method is quite a bit of work however and there’s been a trend to no-knead bread that is allowed to develop over a much longer time period than conventional modern baking. As well as saving on effort, the long ferment allows superior flavours to emerge.

The baker I’ve found whose guidance is the most reliable and easy to follow is the American, Ken Forkish, whose book Flour Water Salt Yeast gives very precise, detailed instructions. He is unusual in a number of respects – his breads mainly use all purpose (or plain) flour rather than the strong bread flour normally favoured for its higher gluten content which supposedly gives a better rise. And he bakes his bread inside a container – by preference, a large cast iron Dutch oven – which helps keep the shape and keeps in moisture allowing the bread to rise more before forming a crust. His sole book has essentially one basic method which he then develops into a variety of different recipes around a common theme.

Forkish’s recipes generally make two large loaves – each roughly a 2lb loaf as a traditional British baker would have seen it. But you could easily halve the recipe and produce one of these large loaves or even two smaller loaves. Below, to keep things simple, we’ll make one (roughly) 2lb loaf (or two smaller 1lb loaves).

You need to do quite a bit of planning around the timetable – his method does not need much active work but it does require being there to do things at a few key moments. In his book, he discusses how to vary the timetables and gives alternative recipes like an overnight loaf but again, we’ll keep things simple here.

He is very precise about the temperatures before the actual baking. This is something of a dilemma in Hong Kong where our ambient temperatures in the summer months are significantly higher than he is working with. Perhaps even more importantly, we have very high humidity. I’ve adjusted his recipe to slightly reduce the amount of water to allow for our higher humidity and not warmed the water as well as slightly reducing the time to reflect the temperature. If your kitchen is air-conditioned, that will lower both the temperature and humidity to closer to his assumptions.

Forkish’s method requires no kneading – neither the conventional British way (of pushing with the heel of the hand) nor the French slap and fold. Instead there is a brief mixing of just the flour and water to “autolyse” the mixture and later a very quick folding two or three times after adding the yeast and salt. He has posted videos on YouTube which are very useful

One thing I’ve found is that the shaping phase is very important and perhaps the most neglected element of getting a good rise. Both Bertinet and Forkish demonstrate in their videos how you can build strength into the dough before it goes into the oven so it rises well. .
Forkish bakes longer than most to achieve a very dark crust. Mrs CookWithNoName prefers a slightly less thick crust so we don’t go as far as him.

Equipment
You need a container to mix the ingredients. Forkish recommends very specific large plastic tubs which are great if you plan to do a lot of baking. I bought some of these via Amazon US. But really anything roughly bucket shaped (or quite a bit smaller for the quantity below) would do. Ideally they’d have a lid or you could substitute cling film I guess. I used a very large Tupperware-type container when I first did this. Round ones are better than square ones because you don’t want corners that bits can get stuck in.

You also need something in which to do the final proofing. This will help in the shaping and contribute to the rise. The classic container is a specialised “banetton” or proofing dish. Traditionally made from cane or basket-weave, they help to dry out the surface of the dough which might assist in forming the crust. But these are hard to locate in Hong Kong and, messy to clean if your dough turns out too sticky as it may do sometimes when you experiment. So you can substitute anything which is roughly bowl shaped – a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl will do fine

It is possible to bake these directly on a baking tray on the shelf of the oven but Forkish’s method is big on using a lidded cast iron container and I’m sure that contributes significantly to the result. Sogo sell a range of nice but expensive American Lodge cast iron ware and I use one of their large Dutch ovens. One disadvantage of this is that, unless you have a range of different shapes and sizes, all your loaves will come out pretty much the same shape. I have a couple of largish cast iron enamelled casserole dishes which I have also used for 1ln loaves and that gives a bit of variety

Forkish recommends baking at a high temperature of 240C. Our previous oven would only go to around 220C and, even if yours says it goes higher, it may be lying to you. But it seems, as long as you can get it above 200C, you’ll be OK although you may need to bake a little longer. If you’re using the cast iron container, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fan oven or gas or electric or whatever because the bread is going to be within in its own hot little world. A fan oven will get hotter quicker however and recover the right temperature more quickly after you open the door.

You’ll need some accurate scales. Other optional extras are a baker’s knife to make a nick or two in the top of the dough to help it break open for a nice finish. (Forkish doesn’t use this, relying instead on it happening naturally in his method.) A cooling rack would help. But you can turn the loaf upside down to cool on a worktop if you don’t have one. A dough scraper helps – these are available cheaply in lots of stores like City Super and the specialist baking stores like Twins.

(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking
 
A 2lb white boule loaf recipe adapted for Hong Kong from Ken Forkish;s Flour Water, Salt Yeast
Author:
Ingredients
  • 500 grams all purpose (plain) flour
  • 360 grams of water
  • 11 g salt
  • 2g instant yeast
Method
  1. Mix the flour and water in your large plastic container. You are simply incorporating the water into the flour. Don’t worry about kneading or anything like that. See Ken Forkish’s video of this stage (but note he is using double the quantity here and a different recipe. The principle is the same though.)
  2. Leave covered in a warmish place for about 25 minutes. (The ambient temperature in Hong Kong will be fine.)
  3. Add the yeast and the salt and mix these into the flour and water by repeatedly folding over the dough and cutting through the mixture with your hand. See Ken Forkish’s method. Cover and store
  4. After about twenty minutes, fold the dough. You need to give a few folds of the dough. This means grasping about a third of the dough from underneath and folding it over itself. You will do this three or four times using a hand that is dipped in a little water to stop the dough sticking to your hand. Ken Forkish’s video shows the method well.
  5. Repeat the folding once more, after about an hour.
  6. After about five and a half hours from when you started, remove the dough from the plastic container onto a lightly floured surface.
  7. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into as tight a ball as possible. You do this by folding the dough repeatedly in on itself from underneath to the top. Then with your hand underneath the ball you spin it around a little to finish the shaping and place into your proving container. Again Ken’s video shows this very well.
  8. Depending on how long your oven needs to heat up, you’ll need to start pre-heating the oven with the cast iron container inside. Heat to 240C if your oven will go that hot, otherwise, as hot as it will go. (You may get a little bit of smoke coming off the container when you remove it, especially if, like me, you oil the container for storage to avoid rust.)
  9. The dough needs to prove for around one hour in Hong Kong summer temperatures (up to 15 minutes longer in the winter or if your kitchen is air-conditioned). Test the proof by pressing with a floured finger – it should go indented and slowly recover its shape when you remove your finger. If it springs back almost immediately then it still has some proving to do; if it doesn’t spring back at all, then it’s over-proved – you should bake right away but the rise won’t be optimal.
  10. When ready, remove the cast iron container with oven gloves; take the lid off and drop in the dough gently, the other way up from how it has been proving. Take care – this is very hot.
  11. Bake for around 30 minutes and remove from the oven. Again, take care.
  12. Take the loaf out of the container and put it back directly onto the oven shelf for a final development of the crust. I just do this for 5-10 minutes depending in how pale the bread is when it comes out but Forkish goes longer. Test the bake by tapping on the base of the loaf – it should give a nice hollow sound, if not it needs longer.
  13. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a cooling rack before trying.
Notes
The crust sadly goes soft quite quickly in Hong Kong’s humidity. You can re-fresh the crust by putting it back in a hot oven (say 200C) for 10 minutes.
The loaf keeps well inside a sealed plastic bag – we’ve happily kept this for a week or so.
Alternatively you can freeze it inside a plastic bag. Either defrost and then re-heat the whole loaf or, if you are only going to use a slice or two at a time, you can slice it before freezing and then defrost individual slices in a toaster.

 

Savoury Shortbread: Biscuits for the Fickle

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So here’s the problem. Mrs. CookWithNoName loves nibbling savoury biscuits but she’s fickle. She’ll find a new type in the shops, like it, try it a couple of times but then get bored. On our travels, we spend ages looking at shelves of biscuits. There are too many sweet ones that she’s not interested in and then we’ll find a nice savoury one but she’ll get bored again after a packet or two.

So clearly we have to do some home-made ones but they need that savoury bite and be not-too-difficult to make.

The current favoured solution is a savoury shortbread recipe. Shortbread turns out to be a very forgiving recipe that’s pretty easy to bake and it gives great scope for adding savoury oomph. Below we look at two variations.

It’s got to beeeeeee perfect….
The basic recipe I’ve been using is a savoury version adapted from the sweet recipe developed by the wonderful Felicity Cloake. If you’re not familiar with her, she runs a weekly feature in the Guardian where she takes a standard dish and tests out various cookbook versions with the aim of developing the “perfect” version. She’s got a couple of books that bring together some of her classic articles but I actually prefer the online version because there’s usually a lively interchange in the comments from readers with their own ideas. The Guardian is generous enough to host the entire archive with no paywall. – 268 perfect recipes at last count.

The neat thing is that you can read her reasoning but don’t have to follow her final recipe – you can adapt it to your taste but informed by her research. Her perfect sweet shortbread recipe uses a mixture of plain and rice flour to achieve the right sandy texture.

From sweet to savoury
We now need to convert the basic shortbread idea into something savoury that Mrs. CookWithNoName will like.

A bunch of experimenting here shows that replacing the sugar with grated cheese works well to give a strong savoury back note. And it needs to be cheese with a powerful flavour. I’ve tried it with a French blue cheese but the result was nice yet a little under-powered. The best results come from parmesan – not surprising when you see how much umami flavour a matured parmesan has. The quality of parmesan available here in Hong Kong is pretty variable – ideally you want to avoid anything too rubbery-looking and find a version that’s relatively dry and crumbly with little crystals in it. Those crystals are apparently solid natural glutamates which carry the umami effect.

Once you have that savoury back note, you can add further flavours and textures to keep up the interest of your nearest and dearest. I add some cayenne pepper and black pepper to make the basic savoury shortbread recipe. You might add a little salt but the parmesan already has a fair amount of salt in it. Two further variations follow.

Variation 1: Parmesan, Fennel and Sea Salt Shortbread
In the first option we brush a little olive oil on the surface of the biscuits and then spread slightly crushed fennel seeds and sea salt on before baking. These ones seem to benefit from being rolled a little more thinly and baked a little higher or a little longer than is typical. I got the idea for this from Bon Appetit magazine.

Variation 2: Parmesan and Pistachio Shortbread
Adding crushed pistachios to the mixture gives you the great flavour of those nuts together with a nice bit of textural and colour variation

Mix, chill, roll, shape, chill
As I said, shortbread is a fairly forgiving basic recipe. You need the butter to be at room temperature and then cream it with a fork. Mix in the flour, black pepper and cayenne. You can add the nuts at this stage if you are going for variation 2. I mix this using the dough hook of our KitchenAid mixer but you could do it by hand with a spatula. The recipes tend to say mix until it “comes together” in a ball. I find that it does not quite come together in a mixer but that if you mix it well and then shape it into a ball by hand, that works fine.

This mixture makes enough for somewhere between 15 and 24 biscuits depending on how thin you make them. The dough mixture keeps well in the freezer so if you’re only going to be nibbling the occasional biscuit or want to remove too much instant temptation from your larder, you can freeze half of this mixture wrapped in a little cling film or inside a plastic freezer bag.

The baking seems to work best if you chill the dough for half an hour before rolling it. Felicity Cloake argues that you don’t want to work this mixture too much when shaping and goes for shaping by hand. That’s a bit of a faff and in my clumsy hands would produce a pretty uneven result. So I find the best way is to lay one sheet of baking parchment on the board; put the dough on that and then put another sheet of baking parchment on top. Then you can roll out the dough easily to whatever thickness you like without having to worry about it sticking or needing to spread extra flour around.

If you’ve got cookie cutters, you can use them to cut out neat rounds or you can cut by hand into little rhomboids or whatever shape takes your fancy. Put these onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (or a silicon liner if you have one) spaced out to allow a little spreading. You may need two baking sheets depending on whether you are baking the whole batch in one go and on how thick you make them. At this stage you put the biscuits on their baking sheet into the fridge for a few minutes to chill a little.

Bake
Shortbread recipes vary a lot on what temperature to bake and for how long. Partly this is a matter of how you like your shortbread. Classic sweet shortbread is baked quite lightly so that the colour remains very pale and is quite a soft texture. But you may like something that is a bit crispier and that maybe is truer of the savoury ones. I suggest 160C and check after about 20 minutes. Don’t let them go too dark whatever you do.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes and then transfer to cooling rack. Store in an airtight tin once completely cooled. They’ll be at their best for a few days. If lightly baked, they can last a couple of weeks but the crispier ones need eating quickly.

Results
Mrs. CookWithNoName is very happy. But it won’t last. I’ll need to develop some more flavours to retain her love. O woman, thy name is fickle!

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Savoury Shortbread: Biscuits for the fickle
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • Basic Savoury Shortbread Dough
  • 130g plain flour
  • 40g rice flour
  • 115g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 60 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp cayenne

Variation 1: Parmesan and and Fennel Shortbread
  • 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
  • 1 tbs fennel
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • Olive oil for brushing

Variation 2: Parmesan and and Pistachio Shortbread
  • 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
  • 75g shelled pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
Method
  1. Cream the butter in a large bowl.
  2. Add both lots of flour, cayenne and pepper (and the pistachio nuts for variation 2)
  3. Mix by hand with a spatula or in a mixer until it starts coming together.
  4. Form into a ball, wrap and chill in the refrigerator for half an hour. (You can freeze all or half at this stage for later defrosting and baking.)
  5. Place a sheet of baking parchment on a board and place the ball on that. Put another sheet of parchment on top and roll out the dough to the required thickness. Between an eighth of an inch and a quarter of an inch. I find option 1 works best thinner and crispier whilst option 2 is better slightly thicker.
  6. Cut out the biscuits with a cookie cutter or a knife and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment or a silicon liner. You may need two sheets.
  7. Chill in the refrigerator for half an hour
  8. Pre-heat oven to around 160C. Slightly hotter if you prefer crispier biscuits.
  9. Remove from fridge.
  10. For variation 1: brush the biscuits with a little olive oil. Slightly crush the fennel seeds with sea salt and spread on the biscuits
  11. Place the baking sheet in the oven.
  12. Rotate to ensure even cooking after about ten minutes.
  13. Check after about 20 minutes from the start of baking. For a classic bake, take out just as they start taking on some colour. For a crispier result, especially for variation 1, leave a little longer.
  14. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  15. After about ten minutes, move to cooling rack and, when they have completed cooling, store in an airtight tin.
Notes
Makes about 15-24 biscuits depending on size and thickness.
Should keep for a week or so in an air-tight tin.