The Recipe I’m Not Sharing and The One I’m Still Perfecting by Deb Gail

I was going to share my recipe for Chunky Apple Walnut Cake which is hands down my family’s favorite holiday recipe. Really any time of year recipe. So favorite that when my oldest daughter was coming home for Thanksgiving this year, she asked if I would make the cake twice while she was home, timed to emerge warm from the oven when she arrived a couple of days before the holiday. And even though I’d love to share the secret of this magical cake that I have literally dreamt of, I’m not going to because I’ve included the recipe at the end of my book. And as long as they don’t edit it out, if you buy my book next fall, you’ll get the recipe in all of its (adapted from The Silver Palate) glory. The operative word adapted since I am so not a recipe person (the whole concept of recipe bringing out my rebel without a cause side) and have never met a recipe I couldn’t fiddle with.

Which leads me to a no-knead bread recipe that I made for the first time this Thanksgiving and for one night of Hanukkah and plan to make for Christmas dinner and therefore in my mind qualifies as a bona fide tradition now.

The original recipe (from The New York Times’ Dining In section) is called Simple Crusty Bread and it calls for:
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
6 1/2 cups unbleached, all purpose flour, more for dusting dough

Basically all you do is mix the yeast and salt into 3 cups of warm water (about 100 degrees). Stir in flour, mixing until there are no dry patches. Dough will be quite loose. Cover, but not with an airtight lid. Let dough rise at room temperature 2 hours (or up to 5 hours). After the rising, sprinkle a little flour on the dough and cut the dough in quarters. Turn the dough in hands to lightly stretch the surface, creating a rounded top and a lumpy bottom. Put the dough on a pizza peel (honestly, I’d never heard of a pizza peel so I put the dough my a cutting board). Repeat with remaining dough. Let rest 40 minutes. Place broiler pan on bottom of oven. Place baking stone on middle rack and turn on oven to 450 degrees; heat stone at that temperature for 20 minutes. Dust dough with flour, slash top with serrated or very sharp knife three times. Slide onto stone. Pour one cup hot water into broiler pan and shut oven quickly to trap steam. Bake until well-browned about 30 minutes.

The first time I made the recipe, I used half organic white wheat flour and half organic oat flour instead of the unbleached flour and didn’t measure all that accurately and much to my surprise I ended up with loaves of bread so beautiful that I wish I’d taken photographs. And it tasted great. My family devoured chunks warm from the oven. I have to admit this made me feel a bit cocky about my bread making abilities (let’s just say I was starting to have visions of opening a bakery). No-knead bread? I could practically make it in my sleep.

When I decided to make the recipe again for Hanukkah, I thought I’d tinker a bit more. I mean why the hell not? I was a bread maker. My middle daughter suggested I add a bit of honey and I thought I’d use 4 cups of oat flour and 2 1/2 cups of the white wheat..

I poured the three cups of lukewarm water into the bowl and then stirred in a
couple of plops of honey and then the yeast and salt and the yeast just sat there not doing the yeasty thing it’s supposed to do. So I dumped the whole thing out, figured maybe the honey wasn’t warm enough. Heated the honey and tried the whole thing again. Still no yeast bubbles. No nothing. Dumped it all out again. Heated the honey and then let it cool until it felt like the same temperature as the lukewarm water. Did the whole water, honey, yeast, salt thing again and it finally yeasted up. A bit. Then I mixed the flour in, telling myself I was almost done and I covered it with a clean dishcloth and set it in a warm place to rise.

3 hours later, I uncovered it and cut it into quarters and picked up the first piece to lightly stretch and not only did it not lightly stretch it clung to my fingers and hands, started growing up my arms.

In the meantime my husband walked into the kitchen eyeing discarded yeast packs, a pan of warmed honey, me caked in wet dough that I was unsuccessfully trying to scrape off my arms.

“What a mess,” he said.

“Too much tinkering,” my middle daughter said from the family room.

They were both right. But that wasn’t the point.

The point was, I was a bread maker and determined to make this easy no-knead bread work (it worked before, I was telling myself).

So I managed to scrape some of the dough back into the bowl and some of it into the sink and then I washed off my fingers and dried them and sprinkled dough on my hands and some on the rest of the dough in the bowl and then I turned the whole thing onto the cutting board and started working the flour into the mixture.

“This is the no-knead recipe?” my husband said.

I gave him the If-you-say-one-more-word-I’m-going-to-scream look and he said, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Turn the faucet on,” I said and walked my wet dough covered fingers over to the sink to washed them off again and dried them and sprinkled them with more dough and sprinkled the dough with more dough. I did this three more times before the dough was firm enough to shape into loaves and then I let it rise again and about an hour later, I put the loaves into the oven (completely forgetting the pan of warm water for steam) and 30 minutes after that we had 4 small, hard not very impressive looking loaves of bread.

Of course my family politely ate some and said it wasn’t that bad. But I knew they were lying.

You might wonder why I’m sharing this less than successful recipe, why I plan to make it again, and the reason is that I think it serves as a sort of a bigger lesson. A cautionary tale of sorts. That is… there is a reason for recipes, a reason to follow the rules. It has something to do with tradition, something to do with respecting what others have tried to do before. This is a lesson I obviously never learned, a truth I never believed or trusted. A character flaw I have finally, in my 4th decade, owned up to.

And yet… while I want to tell you that I won’t fiddle with the no-knead recipe when I make it the week after next… I’m afraid that wouldn’t be the truth.

18 Replies to “The Recipe I’m Not Sharing and The One I’m Still Perfecting by Deb Gail”

  1. I can imagine you with this monster glob of dough multiplying in your arms 😉
    I am a little-of-this-a-little-of-that type of cook as well. Works fine unless baking. So bread is simply out of the question for me–so much so that when I saw it was a bread recipe I just bypassed it altogether. Although I’m always a bit wistful when someone passes on a delicious loaf of freshly baked bread–it’s one of those things that evokes so many memories/emotions/etc. My mother used to make homemade grape jelly and french bread every fall and I can still taste its homemade goodness in my mind, some 30 years later…

  2. When my daughters were little I also used to make bread regularly. It seemed to be one productive thing I could do in between nursing and napping and changing diapers. I had one recipe I’d mastered (and honestly can’t remember how much I tinkered with it). But that was years ago and I lost the original recipe and I was attracted to this recipe because it was SO simple and yet of course I complicated it. But homemade jelly? That’s WAY out of my league!

  3. I’m taking this as a cautionary tale against “easy” recipes, Gail. And also against tinkering with recipes. But since the only recipes I will attempt are the easy ones, I’m almost back at “don’t cook at all” which is my natural inclination.

    Great post. I can totally imagine the look on your face as your husband entered the kitchen and I have faith that you will perfect the “no-knead” soon.

  4. I hadn’t thought of it that way, Danielle… but yes, let’s say easy recipes are too easy to make hard…

    Larramie, oddly, it’s true. I DO enjoy revisions. It’s my favorite part of the writing process and for me they could go on forever.

  5. Gail, I always like how you turn posting topics into much more meaningful, witty examinations on a facet of life. (And I love that I could totally visualize this, since I’ve been in your awesome kitchen! The kitchen of my dreams…*sigh*)

  6. I love to tinker with recipes- but I rarely tinker with bread. Bread is the high maintenance woman of the cooking world. One little change and WHAM she wants nothing to do with you. She sits and sulks. Flat.

    Yeasty bitch.

  7. I’m a recipe tinkerer also, which is why I rarely bake (that and I’d surely eat any and all baked goods I prepared). And as for your lesson learned (or not), I think everything can use a little bit of tinkering – the key is to know when to stop.

    p.s. I’ve also included a recipe at the end of my most recent ms – it’s for my mother’s famous kugel.

  8. I am so glad there are so many other recipe (and life) tinkerers out there. I think with the bread I have to just get a feel for it again (which might mean more dough growing up my arms). There’s something about temperature and moisture that can make and/or break a yeasty concoction.

    And kugel, huh? I LOVE kugel… your book sounds yummy!!

    Caroline, I’m so flattered you trust it. Let me know if it works for you!!

  9. Oh and thanks for saying that, Jess. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. I thought I just had NO idea how to write a blog entry…

  10. Just got my copy of WD, the February 2008 issue … Full page story FIRST IMPRESSIONS, page 24, titled COMING-OUT PARTY “A chick-lit writer finds marketing magic in a group blog for debut authors”…

    and a cute pic of Eileen and her dog!

    And it says some nice stuff about the Debs blog, but NO LINK TO THE BLOG!!!!

    Stephanie aka Manic Mommy

  11. The last time I tinkered with a bread recipe everyone received nicely browned, discus-like stones for Christmas. They were elegantly wrapped, though.

    I think I’ll try this one out. One must have bread for the holidays.

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