A Small, Good Thing…and a Couple of Bread-Making Game Changers

My favourite short story is Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s a tragic little story that involves the death of a child, a forgotten birthday cake, and an angry baker who thoughtlessly (and unknowingly) torments the parents of the child. When the parents finally discover the identity of their tormenter and confront the angry baker, he immediately melts in the face of their grief and brings them into the warmth of his bakery where he feeds them fresh bread in a moment of forgiveness and healing–a kind of secular communion:

“Smell this” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

Eating the fresh bread is the “small, good thing” of the title. And fresh bread is a small, good thing. Indeed, hot, fresh bread is something to which almost everyone responds. Even my friends who are sensitive and allergic to gluten swoon over a fresh gluten-free loaf. And so I’ve enjoyed serving this bread–this small, good thing–to our various guests to the cabin this summer: it seems to me an appropriately welcoming gesture to people who’ve usually travelled a long way to spend time with us at our funky little cabin.

And so I’ve been keeping a container of white no-knead dough and a container of whole-wheat no-knead dough in the fridge all summer, and it’s been great fun experimenting with buns and boules and baguettes and pizza shells.

Indeed, I’ve now infected a number of friends and relatives with the no-knead bread-making bug, and the great thing about this little community of bread makers is that we share tips and tricks we’ve discovered in our various attempts at creating the perfect loaf.

My brother Johnny complained about the density of the loaves he was making, so I started to wonder what I was doing wrong that my own loaves didn’t contain nice big irregular air holes. I realized it was likely that I wasn’t letting the bread achieve room temperature (and, consequently, a longer rise) because I was too impatient for those hot, fresh loaves.

So I reminded myself of my mantra when it comes to cooking (and gardening, for that matter…and maybe even life in general, though I’d have to add “Always be kind and always be humble” to the words below to complete my life motto!):

You have to be patient and you have to be brave.

In this case, bravery isn’t really an issue, but patience is. And all that patience has indeed paid off! I’ve begun shaping my loaves and leaving them on the stovetop for at least an hour, and the result is much, much airier loaves.

So, game changer #1 is…

Always let the shaped loaves rise until they achieve room temperature.

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The other issue was that the baking time seemed to be a bit hit-and-miss. The loaves sometimes seemed done (with a nice golden crust), but would end up a bit gummy, particularly on the bottom. I always was sure to remove the parchment paper immediately and place the loaf on a cooling rack, yet the gumminess sometimes remained. However, last week, my brother, Johnny–one of my converts–sent me this:

According to Peter Reinhart, “Hearth breads, like the very wet, rustic type of dough used in No-Knead Bread should always be baked to an internal temperature of at least 205°F. I bake my No-Knead Bread until it reaches 210°F or 215°F.” –Faith Durand

I mentioned to James that I was thinking of picking up an internal thermometer next time we went into town. The dear man disappeared for a moment and reappeared with a very nice quality internal thermometer he’d apparently purchased from his beloved Lee Valley Tools years ago, but never had the opportunity to use. I tried it with a couple of loaves I was making for our weekly Friday Feast with the Hornby folks and the loaves were the best I’ve ever made!

And game changer #2 is….

Always use an internal thermometer to ensure your bread achieves an internal temperature of 205 – 210 degrees to ensure a perfect texture!

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The first couple of times I did this, I pulled the loaves out and “took their temperature” on the counter, but now, when the crust looks done-ish, I just stick the probe into the side of the loaf (at the mid point) and leave it in the bread until a temperature of 210 is achieved.

While these two steps might seem a bit fussy, they really aren’t: the first just takes a bit more planning (and, hey, I’m retired now–what else do I have to do with my time?!) and the second, a bit of equipment. And believe me, the results are worth it!

And I’ll leave you with this little TED talk: Peter Reinhart’s The Art and Craft of Bread. Notice that he gets a bit choked up just after the 13:20 mark–proof that the symbolic nature of bread (and its transformative properties) is important (and that’s not just my twelve years of Catholic school talking!):

https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/peter_reinhart_on_bread.html

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