Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads

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Nancy Baggett
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Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads
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Do you have a fear of yeast? Does kneading dough tie you up in knots? Is the time you spend on fresh bread measured by the length of the line at your local bakery?  If you answered "yes" to any of those questions then Nancy Baggett's latest book Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads may be a godsend. Otherwise, you might want to just keep making bread the way you have been.

As I read through the introduction describing the need for a less time consuming, hands-off approach to making bread, I wondered what all the hoopla was about. You mix up a batch of dough, knead it for ten minutes and the rest is easy. According to Baggett, it takes nine steps to make great bread.

She goes into great detail about the chemistry behind the steps, covering the actions of yeast as well as the processes of "delayed first fermentation" and her own "micro-kneading." This is followed by another section called "Getting Started" with a somewhat ominous warning to "read this first."

I decided not to since many a time-pressed cook won't either. It seems likely to me that someone might pick up the book and simply proceed with a recipe before reading all of the front matter.

Choosing the All-Purpose Whole Wheat Bread variation of Light Wheat Bread from the Easiest Ever Yeast Breads chapter, I dove right in. The rising time, all told, ended up spanning 23 hours. I found the instructions to vigorously stir the dough followed by a directive to add more flour if it wasn't a hard-to-stir dough somewhat confusing. How does one vigorously stir a hard-to-stir dough? At any rate, it seemed more batter than dough even after a good bit of flour was added. A little skeptical, I slid the pan into the oven and an hour later retrieved a perfectly fine loaf of bread.

However, it was no better than one I could have produced in less than four hours using one of my favorite go-to recipes.

Going back to the beginning text I read the "read this first" section. After seven pages of instruction we are told "…the emphasis on Kneadlessly Simple is on keeping things simple…" before going over six pages of notes on ingredients. This is followed by seven pages devoted to troubleshooting problems that may occur. Not all that encouraging, if you ask me.

Overall, the book is divided into six major chapters that classify the breads and has a collection of gorgeous, full-color photographs at the center. Each recipe title is followed by a box with the "KS Quotient." Here we learn if a bread is easy, super easy or fairly easy along with a note about ingredients or about the resulting loaf and whether or not it calls for hand-shaping.

Even though Baggett says she's not a fan of multigrain breads, I am, so I chose the Sonoma-Style Multigrain Crunch Bread from the American Favorites chapter as my next preparation. The KS Quotient reads, "Fairly Easy: Fairly long ingredient list, but easily mixed. Some hand-shaping."  The recipe makes two large round loaves.

I wanted to take this bread with me to a morning meeting, so I had to do some calculating for when I should start it the day before. The first rise called for 3 to 10 hours in the refrigerator and then 12 to 18 hours at room temperature. The dough mixed up easily enough when I began the process two days before I wanted to serve it. After 28 hours of rising, and the evening before my meeting, the loaves finally went into the oven.

This is where the trouble began.  The instructions said to preheat the oven to 450 degrees but once the loaves went in you were to reduce the temperature to 425. My oven is digital and for some reason (I know, it's completely my fault) the adjustment didn't take place, the oven went off. My breads were in a cooling oven for the first 30 minutes of the baking time. Okay, I set the oven and hoped for the best.

The next step seemed somewhat counter to the keeping it simple theory in that after that first 30 minutes, you had to take the loaves out of the Dutch ovens you started them in and transfer to a baking sheet. Guess what? Mine stuck to the first pans in the worst way. I persevered, dug out and patched together the bread as best I could. Now I had to cover the tops with foil and bake 20 to 25 minutes more. Once they reached the proper temperature they had to bake 5 to 10 minutes longer to make sure the centers were done.

By midnight, as the timer went off yet again, I was really resenting this bread. I've never resented bread before. Adding insult to injury, everyone at the meeting made fun of my ugly loaf of bread and then said how marvelous it tasted.

I've made beautiful and delicious multigrain breads in a single day before following a recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice. So what if I had to spend five minutes the day before making a soaker? What's so bad about kneading bread?

Then I remembered a comment my sister had made about wishing she could bake bread. I wrote to her and asked why she didn't. "I find working with yeast scary.  It's alive," she said. "If you don't have it at the perfect temperature, it isn't going to work.  Plus, you have to knead it and I get tired and am never sure if I did it long enough.   It takes a lot of time, letting it rise twice."

It occurred to me that maybe I was being a snob. Kneadlessly Simple has a place for people like my sister and others who haven't been making bread for years.

I decided to move on to something more challenging. The Apple-Cream Cheese Pinwheel Pastries from the Sweet Breads and Gift Breads chapter sounded delicious. First I had to make the recipe for All-Purpose Enriched Sweet Dough. As the KS Quotient said, it was "Fairly Easy: Two-stage mixing. Very versatile." In keeping with the simple theme, I chose to mix it by hand rather than getting out the standing mixer as the recipe gave as an option.

The apple filling and cream cheese filling also came together easily, as promised. The apple mixture perfumed the kitchen with the aroma of cinnamon and tasted like a yummy caramel apple. You can never go wrong with cream cheese filling, in my opinion.

It all went downhill from here. The dough was, as the recipe requested, a very stiff consistency. However, pressing it to 7 x 16-inch rectangle seemed too thick and, after spreading it with the apple filling and rolling into a "pinwheel log," it became squishy and unwieldy. The recipe warned of this "somewhat soft" condition. You can only imagine cutting the poufy log into sixteen pieces. Filling was popping out all over and the rolls were sticking to the parchment and the "oiled wide-bladed spatula" used to transfer them to the baking sheets. 
Once they were finally in the oven things began to look up. Except the kitchen was trashed! Flour and sticky apple filling covered the counter and sheets of parchment. Numerous gummed-up utensils, two mixing bowls and a saucepan surrounded the mess. At least I hadn't employed the standing mixer too. We want to keep this simple.

The rolls were tasty although I thought the pinwheel effect would have been better if distributed on a thinner sheet of dough. The soft cream cheese centers were the best part.

I'm going back to regular yeast and good old two-fisted kneading. My sister can have Kneadlessly Simple. I'll just tell her to skip the Apple-Cream Cheese Pinwheel Pastries. We don't want to scare off a budding bread baker.
Easy Oat Bread
Yield: 2 medium loaves, about 12 slices each

5 1/2 cups (27.5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose white flour or unbleached white bread flour, plus more as needed
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats or quick-cooking (not instant) oats, plus 4 tablespoons for garnish
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Scant 2 3/4 teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon instant, fast-rising, or bread machine yeast
1/4 cup clover honey or light (mild) molasses
1/4 cup corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil, plus extra for coating dough top and baking pans
2 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons ice water, plus more if needed

FIRST RISE:  In a very large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, oats, sugar, salt, and yeast. In a medium bowl or measuring cup, thoroughly whisk the honey (or molasses) and oil into the water. Thoroughly stir the water mixture into the larger bowl, scraping down the sides until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. If the mixture is too dry to incorporate all the flour, a bit at a time, stir in just enough more water to blend the ingredients; don't over-moisten, as the dough should be stiff. Brush or spray the top with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. For best flavor or convenience, you can refrigerate the dough for 3 to 10 hours. Then let rise at cool room temperature for 12 to 18 hours; if convenient, vigorously stir once during the rise.

SECOND RISE: Vigorously stir the dough. If necessary, stir in enough more flour to yield a hard-to-stir consistency. Generously oil two 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Sprinkle a tablespoon of oats in each; tip the pans back and forth to spread the oats over the bottom and sides. Use well oiled kitchen shears or a serrated knife to cut the dough into 2 equal portions. Put the portions in the pans. Brush or spray the tops with oil. Press and smooth the dough evenly into the pans with an oiled rubber spatula or fingertips. Sprinkle a tablespoon of oats over each loaf; press down to imbed. Make a 1/2-inch-deep slash lengthwise down the center of each loaf using oiled kitchen shears or a serrated knife. Tightly cover the pans with nonstick spray-coated plastic wrap.

LET RISE USING ANY OF THESE METHODS: For a 2- to 3-hour regular rise, let stand a warm room temperature; for a 45-minute to 2-hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave along with 1 cup of boiling-hot water; or for an extended rise, refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 24 hours, then set out at room temperature. Continue the rise until the dough nears the plastic. Remove it and continue until the dough extends 1/2 inch above the pan rims. 

BAKING PRELIMINARIES: 15 minutes before baking time, place a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees F.

BAKING: Bake on the lower rack for 50 to 60 minutes, until the tops are well browned. Cover the tops with foil. Then bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, until a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out with just a few particles clinging to the bottom portion (or until the center registers 208 to 210 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer). Bake for 5 minutes longer to be sure the centers are done. Let cool in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out the loaves onto racks and cool thoroughly.

SERVING AND STORING: Cool thoroughly before slicing or storing. Best served toasted. Store airtight in plastic or aluminum foil. The bread will keep at room temperature for 3 days, and may be frozen, airtight, for up to 2 months.
Recipe courtesy "Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads," written by Nancy Baggett, published by John Wiley & Sons, 2009.


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