There was a time in my life where I came very close to giving up all I had worked for to escape everything and bake bread for a living. It was almost three years ago actually, mere days from my college graduation. After spending 4 years studying film and media and finding nothing remotely close to an internship opportunity I, on a total whim, drove an hour away to an artisan bread shop and asked for a job. I think it was a combination of the stress of the oncoming “real world” combined with the influence of a pastry internship I was doing at the time, but at that moment it seemed like the only option for me.
I was given a tour of the production facility and after an informal interview was told I could take on a 3-week stage and, if that went well, could start working the night shift. After that, I went back to my house, feeling confused and very small in the world, and simultaneously terrified yet excited. I then sat fully clothed in my tub and cried for at least 3 hours. Needless to say that was a low point in life. After much thought, I came to my senses, turned down the offer, and started on the path to where I am today (not baking bread for a living).
Despite all of this though, baking bread is still one of those tasks that I enjoy the most. I like its precision and simplicity, I like the meditative state you can achieve while kneading dough, and patiently waiting for it to undergo all of its scientific changes and processes. Starting from the bare minimum and then the rise, the transformation, and the development into something complex and new. It’s a little like how I was on that day years ago, and really any time I go through some sort of life shift. All that’s needed is time to sort everything out.
So now, sorting everything out, I make bread. The recipe, yet again, comes from the genius of Jim Lahey and his no-knead method where the most important ingredient is time. This Pane con Formaggio (cheese bread) is just as simple as the others with the same spongy interior and crackling crust but each slice is riddled with pockets of salty cheese and lots of freshly cracked pepper. It’s wonderful as a part of a charcuterie platter with prosciutto, cornichons, and dried apricots and I can’t wait until it gets stale so I can turn it into croutons for a salad. You can also choose between various firm or semi-firm cheeses to customize it to your own tastes!
Pane con Formaggio
From Jim Lahey’s My Bread
3 cups (400 grams) bread flour
2½ (200 grams) Pecorino, Asiago, aged Fontina, or any other salty firm or semi-firm cheese, cut into half-inch cubes
1 tsp. salt
¾ tsp active-dry yeast
½ tsp cracked black pepper
1 1/3 cups room temperature water
In a medium bowl stir together the flour, cheese, salt, yeast, and pepper. Pour in the water and use a wooden spoon or your hands to combine the mixture into a shaggy, sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 12-18 hours.
Once this first rise is done, scrape the dough onto a floured surface. Carefully use your hands to lift up the edges of the dough into the center and shape it into a ball. Dust a clean kitchen towel liberally with flour and place it inside of a medium bowl so that the edges hang over. Place the dough into the bowl, seam side down, and cover the dough with the overhanging cloth. Place in a warm spot to rise for 1-2 hours until almost doubled in size.
30 minutes before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 475 degrees and place a covered 4½ - 5½ quart cast iron pot in the oven. When the dough and oven are ready to go, carefully remove the dutch oven and the lid and invert the dough into the pot. Place the lid back on the pot and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook for 15-30 minutes, until deep golden. Use a wooden spoon to lift the bread and move to a cooling rack and wait until it's cool before slicing.