Stecca'n It To You or Why I Continue to Love Jim Lahey

This above photograph is exactly why I could never commit to a raw vegan diet. Near perfect in both simplicity and taste, a fresh from the oven piece of bread with no more than a couple of slices of cheese could be my staple from now until the end of time. It's not boring, I promise you that - especially with Jim Lahey's recipe for amazingly quick and easy Stecca.

"Stecca" is Italian for "stick", and refers the shape of this baguette-style bread. It is just plain perfection how Lahey manages with each recipe in My Bread to give a distinct and unique characteristic to such banal ingredients as flour, water, yeast. A mere 1/2 teaspoon of yeast interacting with the home kitchen environment for 12-18 hours results in more flavor than any bakery purchased baguette I've ever tasted. This bread in particular confirms all the more my need to pilgrimage to NYC and wait on line at Sullivan Street Bakery just to see how in the world a bread could possibly taste any better.

Since I have been reading up lately on vegan and raw vegan diets, I almost feel pangs of guilt posting this baked good, in all of it's non-raw glory. I was even briefly considering (before slicing into this bread, that is) committing to a vegan/raw vegan diet exclusively for a set period of time, but I just don't know now. My head is swimming with information, and all I can think is that my Mantra (Everything in Moderation) needs a good chanting over and over and over again.

I really am fascinated with the various diets that come and go, and certainly there are many merits to vegan and raw vegan diets in particular, but I'm also reminded of one example the complete opposite of raw vegan: The Atkin's Diet. That one ended rather poorly for Dr. Atkins, but I guess the jury is still out on the exact state of his health. While I'd never subject myself willingly to a mostly meat and no carb diet, I may find myself meeting somewhere in the middle with my current eating habits. With so much conflicting information on human diet, I may very soon need to find myself sitting cross-legged in a corner and repeating what I do know to be the truth about most things in life, that really most everything is good for you in moderation.

In general, I do admit I may be a little on the "carb heavy" side of things, but with breads like this, I really just can't help it. It would be quite helpful if I had a neighborhood full of carbohydrate hungry Velociraptors to inhale all this demonic wheat with which I feel such compulsion to bake. But, something as simple as a loaf of bread so instantly elevates any dish it is served with (or sandwich that it turns into), that it almost seems puritanical. In my new raw vegan mind, I am thinking about all of the delicious soaked seed spreads I've been seeing, and thinking that I could make at least a tasty vegan sandwich if not a full raw vegan sandwich with this, and I am sure that very soon, I will be doing just that.

Ordinarily, I am downright pious in my abilities to wait until a bread is fully cool to slice into, but I only let this one cool down a little bit. I figured, I had 3 more to fall back on if the first one got mysteriously "ruined"! I think this bread would be optimum dinner party fodder, since it requires so little in the way of maintenance beforehand. I'd recommend planning 18 hours for the initial rise (less than 5 minutes of prep time), then three hours before eating, commence with the second rise (another less than 5 minute job). By the time you are ready for supper, you will be rewarded with semi-warm and amazingly fresh bread. I have always used the weight measurements in this book, and found them pretty consistent with the volume measurements.

Stecca (by the genius, Jim Lahey)
  • 400 grams (3 cups) bread flour
  • 8 grams (1 1/4 t.) salt
  • 1 gram (1/4 t.) active or instant yeast
  • 300 grams (1 1/2 cups) cool (55-65 degree) water
  • olive oil for pan and drizzling
  • flour for dusting
In a medium bowl, stir together flour, salt and yeast. Then, add water and mix about 30 seconds until you have a wet sticky dough. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 12-18 hours until the dough has at least doubled in size and has little bubbles on it.

After this first rise is complete, generously (GENEROUSLY) dust work surface with flour. Scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece, and fold it onto itself gently two or three times into a somewhat flattened ball. Brush the surface with olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/4 t. coarse salt.

Generously dust a tea towel (non-lint towel) with flour, and place the dough on it, seam side down. If it is still a bit sticky, dust it with a little flour, cornmeal or wheat bran. (I have a linen kitchen towel that I only use for bread that I never wash - it has a nice build up of flour already in it, which prevents the dough from sticking. If you do this, make sure to hang the towel up to dry thoroughly between uses so it doesn't mold.) Let the dough rise for 1-2 hours (I found it was closer to the 2 hour mark in my cool room-temp) in a draft-free place. About a half an hour before the end of this second rise, preheat the oven to 500 degrees, and oil a half sheet (13x18 inch) sheet pan with olive oil.

Cut the dough into 4 equal quarters, and gently stretch each piece evenly into a stick shape the length of the pan. Place on pan, leaving 1 inch between sticks. Brush with olive oil, and sprinkle each stick with a pinch of coarse salt.

Bake for 15-25 minutes (mine took only 15!) until crust is golden brown. Cool on the pan for 5 minutes, then move them to a rack to cool completely.

If you choose, you can line the length of a Stecca with halves of cherry tomatoes, cloves or garlic or whole olives, (Lahey said not to use the additional sprinkle of salt on the olive bread due to the salt in the olives), but I would recommend really pushing them down into the dough well since mine hovered closer to the top. Lahey also notes that if the breads get a bit soggy from sitting, you can reheat them in a hot oven to revive them - another great tip if you are planning them for a dinner!

If you eat bread, if you think you may ever decide that you want to try making bread, you should add Lahey's book to your "must have in the kitchen library" list. It seems like I'm all about having projects lately, and I know that I could not be disappointed with any recipe in this book. I have decided that I will be keeping track of my progress of working through the book under the Lahey Project tab at the top of the page. I can't promise any time frames, but I can tell you that given enough time and dinner companions, I will make everything Mr. Lahey has to offer me. I know that it will be a fine time for all eaters involved as well.