This past weekend my family and I hosted a chili cook-off for a group of friends from church. It’s an annual tradition of ours, one that started five years ago in a different state with a different group of friends, but one that brings me great joy no matter where we are. The food is always good but the company is always better, especially as we round out the evening with a white elephant gift exchange. You can learn a lot about a friend by what junk they’re willing to steal from another. There are echoes of hooting laughter in my head that have carried over the years, never to be forgotten.
This year as the evening wrapped up, many of the guys kindly took slow cookers outside, returning with shivers as the temperature had dropped significantly in the hours since they arrived. This cold is unusual here, as is the amount of snow that has fallen on Ohio this season. And though I grew up in Wisconsin, the cold is not something I relish or welcome with open arms. But if it must be, there is little else I can do but throw up my hands in concession and bake my little heart out in the kitchen. A good pot of soup or chili helps fend off the chill; a good loaf of chewy, rustic bread alongside that pot is natural.
Now, I am not one to fear getting my elbows a little floury from kneading bread dough, but I had yet to find a recipe for a rustic bread to accompany soup that was truly toothsome, flavorful, risen with lovely air bubbles trapped inside a deep brown, crackly crust, and didn’t require hours of hands-on time in the kitchen. I tried. Many came up short.
But, as you might have guessed, my search is over and I’m sharing with you. This is one of the easiest recipes you could ever do for homemade bread of any kind. I will say that it requires some thought as the initial dough has to sit for at least 8 hours and no more than 18 and you need a can of beer. But I find that after I put the girls to bed, I spend 5 minutes in the kitchen pulling the dough together and then sometime toward the late hours of the next morning I finish it off (the bread that is, not the beer). You could easily pull it together before bed, let it sit until the next afternoon and bake it up for a late supper.
I’ve made the white, whole wheat, and cranberry-pecan variations all with great results. I find that my Dutch oven often overbakes the bottom of the loaf, but my cheap covered stockpot seems to do quite nicely (just be sure to cover any “rubbery” handles and such with foil while heating in the oven). I found this out because I often double the recipe and I only have one enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. 🙂 This bread also makes an excellent gift, especially when presented in a simple cloth bread bag that can be returned to be refilled countless more times.
So as the memories from this year’s chili cook-off are being filed in my mind with those from years past, I smile to think of the many friends –past and present– that I have been blessed with. Most of the gifts exchanged have already or will quickly disappear, and that’s okay. I know that next year will bring new batches of chili along with more “treasures” to unwrap. But I also know that along with that will come another opportunity to spend time with friends and to remember some of the kind souls who have left indelible marks on my heart. That’s a treasure I will cherish always.
Almost No-Knead Bread
from America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Cookbook
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
- 1-1/2 tsp. salt
- 3/4 cup water, room temperature
- 1/2 cup mild-flavored beer
- 1 Tbsp. white vinegar
- Whisk the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Fold in the water, beer, and vinegar with a rubber spatula until the dough comes together and looks shaggy. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours or up to 18 hours.
- Lay an 18 by 12-inch sheet of parchment paper inside a 10-inch skillet and spray with vegetable oil spray. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball, 10 to 15 times. Shape the dough into a ball by pulling the edges into the middle with floured hands. Transfer the dough, seam side down, to the prepared skillet.
- Mist the dough with vegetable oil spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when poked with a knuckle, about 2 hours.
- About 30 minutes before baking, adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, place a large covered Dutch oven on the rack, and heat the oven to 500 degrees.
- Lightly flour the top o the dough and score the top of the loaf with a razor blade or sharp knife in a large X or C shape about 1/2-inch deep. Carefully remove the pot from the oven and remove the lid. Pick up the parchment and dough and carefully lower them into the hot pot, letting any excess parchment hang over the edge. Cover the pot.
- Place the pot in the oven, reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees, and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to bake until the center of the loaf registers 210 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the crust is deep golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Carefully remove the bread from the pot, transfer to a wire rack, and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.
Whole Wheat Variation: Substitute 1 cup whole wheat flour for 1 cup of the all-purpose flour. Stir 2 Tbsp. honey into the water before adding to the dry ingredients in step 1.
Cranberry-Pecan Variation: Add 1/2 cup dried cranberries and 1/2 cup toasted pecan halves to the flour mixture in step 1.