My husband enjoys making bread, an impulse I have encouraged by buying him any equipment he might need, from a stone for the oven to a peel for removing the loaves to lint-free linen towels.
However, his favorite recipe is so time consuming and messy (sorry, but it's true) that preparing the bread has been reserved for special occasions.
He uses a recipe from "Bread Alone" by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik (Morrow, 1993). The process requires fermenting a poolish, a type of starter, overnight and 15 to 17 minutes of vigorous hand kneading. Then comes more hours of fermenting, during which my husband takes the dough's temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When baking, he opens the oven door a couple of times to spray the oven walls with water (the steam helps form the crust). By the time the loaves are ready, flour is on virtually every horizontal kitchen surface.
It is wonderful bread, with a slight sourdough flavor and firm, even texture. We savor it like rare wine. Then, it's gone, leaving only its lingering aroma.
Fresh homemade bread is such a soul-satisfying delight, but has seemed out of regular reach. Yes, bread machines work, but I don't want to surrender counter space to a large, single-function appliance.
Then, I heard about the famous no-knead bread recipe.
This thing has circled the Internet faster than African get-rich spam since it appeared in The New York Times last November. My brother-in-law mentioned it to me last month, but didn't come through with the recipe, so I went looking for it. Didn't take long to find it. According to a follow-up in the Times, the recipe has been translated into German and prepared in Togo.
The original recipe came from Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, and it lets time do the work instead of your forearms. You simply stir together flour, yeast, salt and water, and let the mixture sit for 18 hours -- just walk away and go about your business. After brief handling, the dough sits for two or three hours more.
The bread is baked in a covered cast-iron pot in a 450-degree oven.
The result is a round, rustic loaf with a chewy crust and an interior with irregularly shaped holes. This is not a fine-textured bread, like my husband's, but is similar in appearance to an Italian ciabatta. It's not full of flavor nuance, but it's good and makes great crostini.
It has also done something that few baking recipes have accomplished: fire the creativity of people from casual cooks to kitchen pros, filling their homes with the aroma of fresh bread. And that can't be bad.
All that this recipe required of me was time, time simply to let the mixture sit in a bowl in my oven's warming drawer. No instant-read thermometers. No need to "praise the dough," as one New Age-y cookbook I have advises.
For my first attempt, I timed the process so that the bread would still be warm for dinner. It went perfectly, and my kitchen wasn't covered in flour and dough wads. I loved the aroma.
Next, I tried adding a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic when I mixed the dough (but you can do it anytime). Perfect again, with a subtle flavor of the herb and garlic.
Virtually everything about this technique is flexible. Add seeds or flavorings. Use whole-wheat flour.
The recipe isn't a new technique -- there's at least one cookbook of no-knead bread recipes out there. But the recipe brings bread down to Earth. Everyone that I've mentioned it to has gotten off-the-charts excited -- almost.
For a cast-iron pot, I went to my neighborhood hardware store. This place isn't a "home improvement center," but a real hardware store, with guys who ask if you need help before the door closes behind you. I found a four-quart pot with a lid, and told the guys I was going to bake bread in it. Blank stares.
Glad I didn't mention a poolish.
1/4 teaspoon yeast
2 teaspoons salt
(Freelance writer and cookbook author Debbie Moose is a former food editor for The News & Observer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)