There’s something primal about the smell of fresh bread coming from an oven or fireside. The aroma soothes the soul. No wonder the scent is said to be the world’s favorite—beating out bacon, newly-mowed grass, and coffee. Yet the thought of making our own bread can be daunting. Baking good bread takes patience, precision, and too often the need to work with a frightening ingredient: yeast.
But Wesley Fordyce has conquered all that. From his cozy, eclectic home high on the windy bluffs of the Missouri River, he nimbly maneuvers bowls of flour, yeasty mixtures, and the rising dough that’s needed for an exquisite loaf of home-baked bread. His sunny, well-stocked kitchen flows into a spacious Great Room, that has the look of a natural history exhibit with displays of wildlife drawings, hornets nests, and a fascinating array of artifacts. Powerful, sometime whimsical, wood carvings scattered about the house and yard evidence both his creativity and love of nature.
But today his medium is dough; not wood. After much testing, Wesley has come up with a bread to share with friends gathered around his kitchen table last week.
His basic recipe is for No-Knead Bread, a favorite of the New York Times food editors. After Wesley became more familiar with handling bread dough, he made enhancements to the original recipe that greatly improved its taste and texture.
To start with, he insists on using King Arthur Bread Flour and Fleischman’s Active Dry Yeast (not rapid rise), and a ceramic bowl. He increases the 1-5/8 cups of water to 2 cups, (“Who the hell knows what 5/8’s of a cup is?”) and sometimes replaces the liquid with all, or part, beer. He ups the yeast from 1/4 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon and massages the dough with a tablespoon of olive oil before letting it rise. All work for the better.
So here’s the Fordyce Formula in a nutshell: Place 1 tsp. dry yeast, 1 rounded tsp. Kosher salt; 3 cups bread flour in ceramic bowl. Stir in 16 oz. of water, or 1 can cheap beer, and remainder water. Mix with a rubber spatula until shaggy. Cover with plate and let rest for 6-12 hours. (NYT says 12-18 hours at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.) After that length of time, the surface of the dough will be dotted with bubbles, as shown in the photo below. Sprinkle the mixture with a handful of flour, stir once and continue to let rest until dough is pillowy, about 15 minutes.
Smear dough with one tablespoon olive oil, cover bowl with cloth or lid, and let rise for another hour or two. A half hour before baking, preheat oven to 475 degrees, (NYT says 450 degrees). Put empty cast iron pot into oven and allow it to heat up. When dough is ready, slide it into heated pot that has been lightly sprinkled with cornmeal. Or sprinkle the bottom and sides of pot with a bit of flour, no greasing necessary. The loaf will look messy, but that’s okay.
Sprinkle top of loaf with coarse sea salt. Cover with lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake for another 15-30 minutes. Slightly tilt loaf from pan so bottom doesn’t get soggy as it sits or place on wire rack. Let cool completely before slicing.
It’s always a grand adventure to visit Wesley’s farm. But especially so when his insatiable curiosity extends to the ancient art of bread baking. Today he’s a bread whisperer, a listener and close observer of the mixing, proofing, rising, and baking of the loaves. He accepts that bread will be different day to day and has learned to accept the subtle differences in each loaf, knowing that heat, humidity, moisture, and brands all affect the outcome.
It was a day of baking and eating, of listening and learning, of talking and walking. Best of all, the day was a good reminder that breaking bread with family and friends is one of the simplest and oldest of life’s pleasures.