Last summer I donated a cooking lesson to my neighbors’ silent auction to benefit their charity that provides aid to a Guatemalan orphanage. The group with the winning bid chose to have a demonstration of a seasonally appropriate starter dish for a casual dinner. On the appointed afternoon I made my way to the home of the hostess and set up to cook the chosen dish: soup. It was a good choice as the weather that day was cold, rainy, and dreary. I had decided to bring along some home-baked bread as an accompaniment to the soup. One was a French nut loaf; a traditional style bread made with ground and chopped nuts as well as nut oil. It is a fine crumbed, hearty bread that pairs well with savory dishes as well as making great toast and sandwiches. My other offering was stecca. Stecca are long thin baguette-like loaves made by a no-knead method (more about that later). As everyone gathered at the kitchen island I went about my demonstration. While the soup was simmering, I set out the bread and explained the components of each to the guests. I instructed them to break the stecca off in chunks and dip it in olive oil. By the time I had plated and garnished the soup, the stecca had all but disappeared. It was the favorite of all the dishes served that afternoon.
The method of making stecca was a revelation to me. I had seen the no-knead method demonstrated on Christopher Kimball’s America’s Test Kitchen series and I was curious. The original source of Mr. Kimball’s recipe was Jim Lahey. In his book “My Bread”, Mr Lahey explains how he developed his method and a little about the science of the process. The difference in the no-knead process lies in the long first rise, by which the dough develops long strands of gluten as the yeast does its work. Apparently the wet quality of the dough facilitates the process. I decided I had to give it a try so I bought Mr. Lahey’s book and chose the stecca because it looked so good. The results were thrilling. How was it that such a simple process could produce such a good tasting loaf of bread? As Mr. Lahey states in his explanation it is the magic of “flour, water and time”. If you are a dedicated baker, you may find some aspects of this process counter-intuitive. Don’t be tempted to add more flour and handle the dough as you would a traditional loaf. Give it a try; I’m sure you will love the results.
Stecca (from “My Bread” by Jim Lahey)
Yield: 4 thin stick-shaped 18 inch loaves; 1/3 pound each
Equipment: A 13-by-18 inch rimmed baking sheet
bread flour 3 cups (400 grams)
table salt 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams)
sugar 3/4 teaspoon (3 grams)
other active dry yeast1/4 teaspoon (1 gram)
cool water 1 1/2 cups (350 grams)
additional flour for dusting
olive oil 1/4 cup ( about 60 grams)
coarse sea salt 3/4 teaspoon (3 grams)
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, table salt, sugar, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.
When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Fold the dough over itself 2 or 3 times and gently shape it into a somewhat flattened ball. Brush the surface of the dough with some of the olive oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the coarse salt.
Place a tea towel on your work surface and generously dust it with flour, cornmeal or wheat bran. Gently place the dough on the towel, seam side down. (At this point the dough may seem loose and sticky, this is okay. Just use your scraper and lightly floured hands to move it.) Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place in a warm draft-free spot to rise for another 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise another 15 minutes.
Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 500 F, with a rack in the center. Oil a 13-by-18-by-1-inch baking sheet.
Cut the dough into quarters. Gently stretch each piece evenly into a stick shape approximately the length of the pan. Place on the pan, leaving at least 1 inch between the loaves. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt.
Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. (Mine take about 17 to 18 minutes). Cool on the pan for 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer the stecca to a rack to cool thoroughly.
Stecca can be enjoyed simply with your best olive oil or used for sandwiches. You probably won’t have leftovers, but if so, they make good croutons for salads and soup.