Getting Healthier During a Pandemic

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Counter-intuitive as it seems, staying at home during the worst health crisis of my lifetime might make me a lot healthier. I am walking: four or five or six miles a day. I am re-connecting with friends by phone, since I can’t see them in person. I am cooking and baking, so our meals are much healthier. Which brings me to tonight’s success story: crusty bread!

I’ve tried to make crusty bread for years. Recipe after recipe failed. I tried high heat, low yeast, different shapes, misting the tops of loaves with water before baking; and carefully putting a pan of water in the oven while the bread baked to create moisture.

Nothing worked.

Until now.

Several months ago, I saved a recipe from the Washington Post. Titled “Overnight Dutch Oven Bread.” The Post said the recipe came from Joy Wilson, a “food blogger and cookbook author.” It sounded too simple and too easy to be true.

Bread takes time. After mixing and kneading, you still need to wait for rising and then punching down, and then rising again, and then baking. Bread also take experience: learning the elastic feel of the dough when you have kneaded it enough, the puffiness when it has risen, the hard, hollow feel of the crust when it is perfectly baked.

The Dutch Oven Bread claimed to be simpler: just stir up the ingredients and let them sit overnight before baking. Of course, like all bread, the process took a lot of waiting time: 30 minutes for rising, 35 minutes at 450 degrees with the cover on, then another 20 minute with the cover off, then an hour of cooling before slicing.

Most mornings I don’t have that time. I have to go somewhere, so I can’t just sit around reading or working on the computer until the bread is ready for the next step.

That was B.C.—Before Coronavirus. Now I am at home all day long.

Last night, I stirred up the batter for Dutch Oven Bread. And it worked! The loaf that came out of the oven was the crustiest I’ve ever baked, and tasted great.

If you are baking more these days, or want to try baking more, here’s the recipe:

INGREDIENTS

3 cups flour, plus more for kneading the dough and dusting the counter
3/4 teaspoon instant yeast (I used regular yeast)
1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/3 cups (320 milliliters) warm water 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

[The Washington Post recommended adding 2 tablespoons of uncooked grits and/or one tablespoon of flaxseeds. I didn’t add either this time.]

DIRECTIONS

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast, salt, and grits and flaxseeds (if using). Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the water and olive oil. Using a wooden spoon, stir until a shaggy, wet and sticky dough forms.

Cover the bowl with greased plastic wrap — greased side facing inside the bowl — and leave at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to 14 hours. The dough will rise and bubble and flatten across the top.

Toward the end of the rising time, place a 6-quart Dutch oven and lid on a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Generously flour a clean work surface and, using a rubber bench scraper or lightly greased silicone spatula, scoop the dough out of the bowl onto the counter. The dough will still be very wet and sticky, but there’s no need to knead it — just flour the top and sides to keep the outside of the dough dry enough to shape it into a roundish ball by pulling the edges to the center of the dough. You can use the rubber bench scraper to assist in the folding.

Flour a 14- to 16-inch piece of parchment paper. Cupping your hands around opposite sides of the dough, gently but decisively transfer the dough to the paper, fold-side down. Dust with more flour wherever sticky dough becomes exposed, and loosely cover with a clean, dry kitchen towel. Allow to rest for 30 minutes. The dough will have risen slightly and should bounce back when gently poked.

Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and set the lid aside. (I like to keep pot holders on the lid and handle of the Dutch oven to remember that it’s very hot.)

Lift the towel off the bread and, using a serrated knife, slash two vents into the surface of the dough to make a big “X.”

Holding two sides of the parchment paper, lower the paper and dough into the hot Dutch oven. Re-cover the pot and place in the oven.

Bake for 35 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the bread is golden brown across the top and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from the oven and let cool in the Dutch oven for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool for 1 hour before slicing and serving. [I just cooled it on the butcher block for an hour.]

Try it—you’ll love it. And even if you have never baked bread before, you can do this!

 

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