It’s not hard to locate most of us these days. More than likely, we’re somewhere at home: on the sofa, in bed with the blankets pulled over our heads, half-dressed and struggling to install videoconferencing software, maybe even waving to our neighbors from our windows and front porches.

Me? I’m usually in the kitchen, probably sporting a floury handprint or two – a remnant of my favorite stress-reliever: baking.

I’ve been in love with baking for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is helping my grandmother make gingerbread. My job was to stand on a chair, holding an inverted jar of molasses over a liquid measure as I watched the sticky, sugary rivulets slowly fill the cup.

Later, I was the kid who offered to teach his middle school class how to make stained glass window cookies. On what was undoubtedly my favorite day of seventh grade, my teacher wheeled in a rolling demonstration island with a mirror mounted overhead. My classmates watched as I molded windowpanes of sweet dough, then filled them in with hard candies I had pulverized — not with the rolling pin I had left on the bus that morning, but with the only tool handy that would do the trick: a baseball bat.

But for a long time, I was afraid of trying my hand at bread. I made a few attempts as a young adult, but gave up after spending nearly an entire Saturday on a disappointing, under-risen loaf with a raw interior.

About 15 years ago, however, I got caught up in the no-knead bread craze first popularized in this country by Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey. Not only was his overnight-rising method simple and almost entirely labor-free, it worked beautifully nearly every time. I was so hooked, I asked for a Dutch oven for my birthday that year.

Eventually, I grew a little bored with crusty boules, so I went on to try nearly every variation on the no- or low-knead theme: Mark Bittman’s speedy version made with extra (too much) yeast, America’s Test Kitchen’s beer-enriched, tighter-crumbed “Almost No Knead” bread, as well as the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” variety in which dough sits, always at the ready, in your fridge for up to two weeks. Some were too heady, others too dense, and none was reliable enough to accommodate an extra ingredient (or four) without collapsing in on itself like a white dwarf star.

And then, in 2009, I discovered Dan Lepard’s recipe for “failsafe white bread.” More than a decade later, it’s still my go-to loaf, one I often bake two or three times a week. Lepard’s recipe is unique in that it mimics all the steps used to create labor-intensive, long-fermented crusty breads, except the process is dramatically abbreviated. It’s like baking on fast-forward.

In place of an hour or more of autolyse – the hydration and enzyme activation step that begins many bread recipes – Lepard’s takes 10 minutes. So too, the kneading. No longer an exhausting shoulder-and-bicep workout that can extend more than a quarter of an hour, this recipe develops gluten and builds a remarkably smooth, bouncy dough through three staccato, 10-second stretches. Yes, really.

“When it came out, I had been writing recipes (mostly for The Guardian newspaper in the U.K.) since ’98 or ’99,” Lepard told me over the phone. “I had experience in readers’ frustrations with bread, and it kind of came out of that. I knew the tolerance levels many readers had. They just wanted to make a loaf of bread, they didn’t want to make the bakery.”

Not only is Lepard’s recipe straightforward, it is also easy to commit to memory. In the U.K., where recipes for baked goods are usually written by weight, rather than in volume measurements, his ratio of 400 grams of flour to 300 grams of water, plus a teaspoon each of salt and yeast, is almost impossible to forget. You may have just memorized it without even trying.

“I wanted a recipe that was so easy to remember, you could take it on holiday with you,” Lepard said. “The restraints of a (newspaper) column mean that you have to distill ideas down, you don’t have extra characters or words. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. Those restrictions made it a really sturdy recipe: What are the most essential things people need to know to produce a great loaf of bread?”

And it really works. I’ve taught this recipe to a few friends, even a preteen niece. Each one made a fantastic loaf of bread on their first attempt.

Once you build a little confidence, you can make your own modifications. A tablespoon of vinegar will give the bread a fluffier, softer texture and a sourdough-like flavor (this little alteration also produces a spectacular pizza dough). If you want a heartier bread, swap in a cup of whole wheat in place of some of the bread- or all-purpose flour, maybe toss in a handful of soaked sunflower seeds or pepitas. Got extra hummus in your fridge? Make a loaf with a few teaspoons of lemon zest and black sesame seeds to complement it.

The tweakable nature of Lepard’s recipe is one of the reasons I adore it so much. It even allowed me to create a pretty passable facsimile of one of my all-time favorite breads, the semolina, fennel and golden raisin bread from Amy’s Bread in New York. This crunchy, aromatic loaf is perfect smeared with a little goat cheese or toasted and spread with peanut butter. You’ll see why it has become my secret potluck weapon. Perhaps, when things return to normal, it will become yours.

From what I see on social media these days, it wouldn’t surprise me. Now that many of us are stuck at home, #bread has been trending on Twitter. People are sharing photos of the loaves they’ve baked, posting recipes for sourdough starters (#sourdough is suddenly another popular hashtag), even hosting live Instagram and Facebook streams that guide viewers through complicated bakes.

But really, you don’t need any of that. All you need is flour, water, yeast and salt. Go on, your kitchen is waiting.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. In ordinary circumstances, he is the restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Judging by the lack of flour on store shelves, everybody is baking. Add this easy loaf to your repertoire. Photo by Andrew Ross

Dan Lepard’s Failsafe White Bread
(Adapted from “Want to bake your own bread? Follow these golden rules” in The Guardian, September 10, 2009.)

Makes 1 large, free-form loaf

3 cups (400 g.) bread flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
1 teaspoon salt
10 ounces (300 ml.) warm water, no hotter than 108 degrees
1 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
Oil for kneading (preferably olive or a neutral oil)

Whisk together the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a measuring cup or small bowl, stir together the water and yeast, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir together into a sticky mass. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Lightly oil your work surface and hands, and knead dough for 10 seconds. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it and let it rest for another 10 minutes. Repeat this twice more for a total of 3 quick kneads. The dough should look smooth and bouncy.

Leave the dough covered for 45 minutes. It should rise, but may not double. Lightly flour a work surface, and pat rested dough into a rough rectangle approximately 10-12 inches wide. Roll into a log and pinch the dough to seal it. Place the log, seam-side down, on a cookie sheet that has been floured or dusted in a little cornmeal. Cover the dough with a floured cloth and leave for 45 minutes, or until the dough has expanded by about half.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Flour the top of the dough, slash the top of the dough about a quarter-inch deep with a very sharp knife or a razor blade, and bake for 35-40 minutes.

To create a crunchier crust, turn off the oven, then remove loaf from the sheet pan and return it to a rack at the top of the oven. Let it cool down slowly, with the oven door slightly ajar.

Almost Amy’s Semolina Golden Raisin Fennel Bread

You can substitute 1 teaspoon cinnamon for the ground fennel, but the bread will take much longer to rise, as cinnamon has an antimicrobial effect that retards yeast. Be patient with it.

Makes 1 large, free-form loaf

2¾ cups (350 g.) bread flour, plus more for shaping
¼ cup (50 g.) semolina flour (durum wheat flour)
1/3 cup (67 g.) golden raisins or dried cherries
2 teaspoons ground fennel
1 teaspoon salt
10 ounces (300 ml.) warm water, no hotter than 108 degrees
1 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
Oil for kneading (preferably olive or a neutral oil)

Whisk together both flours, dried fruit, fennel and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a measuring cup or small bowl, stir together the water and yeast, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir together into a sticky mass. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Lightly oil your work surface and hands, and knead dough for 10 seconds. If fruit falls out of dough as you knead, just push it back in. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it and let it rest for another 10 minutes. Repeat this twice more for a total of 3 quick kneads. The dough should look smooth and bouncy. Leave the dough covered for 45 minutes to an hour. It should rise, but may not double. Lightly flour a work surface, and pat rested dough into a rough rectangle approximately 10-12 inches wide. Roll into a log and pinch the dough to seal it.

Place the log, seam-side down, on a cookie sheet that has been floured or dusted with a little cornmeal. Cover the dough with a floured cloth and leave for 45 minutes, or until dough has expanded by about half. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Flour and sprinkle a little semolina over the top of the dough. Slash the top of the dough about a quarter-inch deep with a very sharp knife or a razor blade, and bake for 35-40 minutes.

To create a crunchier crust, turn off the oven, then remove loaf from the sheet pan and return it to a rack at the top of the oven. Let it cool down slowly, with the oven door slightly ajar.


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