As a service to my readers, food & feast posts will always feature the recipe first, with history, folklore, and cooking tips toward the bottom of the page. For background on this recipe and helpful hints for navigating technique, scroll down! Otherwise, dive right in with the recipe below.
confit garlic & wild thyme no-knead bread
Yields one loaf
Vegan / Contains flour
Prep time : 4 hours 30 minutes
Cook time : 1 hour
FOR THE CONFIT GARLIC
15 cloves garlic, peeled
Extra virgin olive oil
FOR THE LOAF
4½ cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt (I used smoked Maldon salt for this recipe)
5 tablespoons loosely packed thyme leaves
2¼ cups warm water
3 tablespoons semolina flour
Begin with your confit. In a small saucepan, place your garlic cloves and fill with olive oil until the cloves are just covered (for me, this was ½ cup of olive oil, but it will vary depending upon the size of your container). Bring to a simmer over a low heat and cook until the cloves are browned and soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and strain, reserving the oil for use in salads, marinades, and other treats, for use within 4 days. Roughly chop your confit garlic and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together your flour, yeast, salt, thyme, and chopped garlic. Mix until thoroughly incorporated. Add your water, and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough forms a soft ball and pulls away from the walls of the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and allow to stand for three hours on the kitchen counter.
After three hours, your dough should be bubbly and doubled in size. Turn your dough out onto a well-floured surface, and fold your bread a few times before shaping into the loaf. Transfer your loaf to a baking sheet that is lined with parchment and dusted with your semolina flour. Cover with plastic wrap or towel once more, and allow to rise for 40 minutes.
While the dough rises, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Place a cake tin or cupcake pan onto the bottom rack of the oven, and fill the pan halfway with water while the oven preheats. This will generate steam in the oven, guaranteeing a crusty loaf. When the dough has risen a second time, remove the plastic wrap or towel and place it into the preheated oven. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the underside of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Allow to cool completely before cutting, as the interior of the loaf will still be cooking after it is removed from the oven.
“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
– Robert Browning
Where humans are concerned, bread is everything. Bread is mankind's greatest invention, which lifted us out of our nomadic early history and settled us into the first communities. Bread exists at the earliest reaches of human culinary history, and continues to be a foundation of our survival here in the present. The baking of bread was one of the first specialized trades in human culture, formalized in daily rituals of bread baking which still exist today. Bread is symbolic of human civilization in itself- a testament to our ingenuity and tenacity as a species. To bread, and the grain plants which make it possible, we as humans owe very, very much.
To understand the cultural, even spiritual, value of bread, consider the way bread features in religious mythology. To the Greeks, it was the goddess Hestia who ruled the hearth and all of the baking and cooking therein as a symbol of domestic order. To the Romans, the oven itself was the goddess Fornax, who received offerings of toasted grains and sacrificial cakes in exchange for a year of unburnt loaves. In Ancient Egypt, Isis ruled the making of barley products like bread and beer, but the body of the dismembered god Osiris was baked in effigy each year, and symbolically brought back to life in bread. In the Torah, God specifically instructs the ancient Hebrews to set a table of bread loaves for him within the Temple of Jerusalem, "shewbread" or "showbread," to be handled by ritually-pure priests and refreshed each week on the Sabbath. In Biblical lore, the story of Christ begins in Bethlehem (Hebrew - "House of Bread") and is immortalized in the bread-based sacrament of the eucharist.
To say that bread is important in human culture misses the mark- bread is central. And as the grounding principle of the human culinary tradition, it's no surprise that bakers return to bread time and time again to master the old devil, through times of peace or chaos. During the early months of the Covid19 pandemic, grocery stores were stripped bare of yeast and flours, as terrified bakers sought to soothe their panic with the oldest of food rituals. For some, the slow pace of breadmaking lends itself to meditation. For others, bread is an art form, a mode of political resistance, and naturally, a regular source of sustenance. Clearly, after almost 14,000 years of baking bread, the magic still works.
Ahead of this loaf, I'd been looking for an occasion to use the small harvest of wild thyme I picked while camping at North-South Lake in Catskill Forest, on Mohican and Haudenosaunee land. It was growing on the south bend of the lake, where we had no luck fishing but much luck foraging, and which reminded me of Oberon's monologue in Midsummer Night's Dream ("I know a bank where the wild thyme blows..."). All day we walked around the lake with my cousins, picking yarrow, red clover, and mugwort, which were brought home for medicines and incenses. As the thyme was a rare surprise, her purpose wasn't immediately clear to me, until it was time to make bread.
While you can certainly add whatever fillings you like to this loaf, savory or sweet, the wild thyme needed a balancing flavor, something rich and decadent. Enter confit garlic, a mainstay in my pantry that I cannot do without. I make a fresh batch every few weeks, and use it in dressings, stir frys, sauces, and spread on toast- its as versatile as it is luxurious. Just before the new moon, this flavor palette feels appropriate- earthy, soft roasted garlic, aromatic wild herbs, dark crusty bread. I'll be saving a piece for my Deipnon feast to Hekate, as garlic and the goddess go way back. While thyme is not a plant specifically under her rulership, it is not inappropriate here. Thyme may be a classic Venusian aromatic, but it is also a potent abortifacient (Saturn), suggesting Venus as crone or a dark feminine aspect, where Hekate is right at home.
If you're nervous in the face of bread, as we all are sometimes, take care in knowing that this recipe is quite forgiving, and is well-suited for novice breadmakers. Its greatest challenge will be in patience, as most of this recipe's duration is downtime. For shaping your loaf, many good tutorials exist online, but often less is more when it comes to handling yeasted doughs. Folding the dough will make it easier to shape and work with, but will necessarily knock out some of the yeast bubbles that give the loaf its beautiful rise. After the first prove, I used a metal bench scraper to book-fold my dough four or five times, and then shaped it into a rough ball and transferred to a semolina and parchment lined baking tray for the second prove. Both proves are equally important, so be sure to give your loaf time and warmth to do it's thing.
As a final note about technique, resist at all costs the temptation to cut into your loaf before it cools down. The smell of fresh bread is an intoxicating and ancient enchantment, but loaves will continue to cook when out of the oven, and this stage is as critical to the perfect texture as a good bake. You may transfer your loaf to a cooling rack when it first comes out, after a good tap-test on the bottom crust, and when the loaf is cool enough to handle, reward yourself with the first fresh slice- one of the most pleasurable experiences of human life on earth.