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The Best Thing Since Homemade Bread 

Learning to bake with the Eureka Emblem Club

Again, folks, it's flour, salt, water and yeast," repeats Linda Barry, attempting to assuage her students' fear of baking bread. In your granny's day, baking bread was a household chore, as unassuming as hanging out the laundry. While a lucky few come home to the aromatic embrace of freshly baked bread, the majority of loaves on the American dinner table are store bought. Local Eureka Emblem Club members Suzie Owsley and Linda Barry take this as a personal challenge. The talented duo want to get Humboldt County baking, old-school style.

On a Sunday afternoon in July, more than 50 students arrived at the Eureka Elks Lodge on Herrick Avenue. Mostly women, young and old, with a sprinkle of men, sit in front of large mixing bowls. Long tables are dressed with colorful tablecloths and a spread of fruit jams from Centerville Farms in Ferndale. Friendly volunteers dart between tables, making certain each student has the correct ratio of flour, salt and yeast, and refilling empty water glasses. Like our teachers, the volunteers are members of the Eureka Emblem Club No. 298. Founded in 1917, the original Emblem Club was a group of Elks ladies who came together to wrap bandages during World War I. These days, the Eureka chapter is keen on community service and cultivating practical skills.

"Have you tried the blueberry?" asks Joanne, a friendly woman seated opposite me, as she spreads a deep purple jam across a slice of bread. We chat while sampling bread accompanied by Kerry Gold butter, Irish cheddar cheese and local jam. Across the table, Norma, a stylish woman with a white coif, gets a laugh from our table saying she was "dragged here," her first cooking class since home ec in high school.

Owsley dons a headset and we settle down. She begins by telling us that anyone can bake a beautiful loaf of artisan bread — no kneading required. The Emblem Club volunteers spread across the room, measuring 2 cups of water into each of our mixing bowls. Owsley instructs us to stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon, the most demanding task of the afternoon. Next, the Emblem Club volunteers come by and stretch plastic wrap across our bowls. And voila! Suzie tells us to take the bowls home and let the dough rise for the next 12 to 23 hours (on the counter, in the laundry room — coastal Humboldt's weather is ideal for letting dough rise). Owsley's dead simple recipe comes from the teachings of Jim Lahey, owner of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. Lahey developed the now famous recipe in 2006 and caught the attention of New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. Bittman described Lahey's bread as, "an artisan bakery loaf, with a crackling crust, open-holed crumb, light texture and fantastic flavor." The magic formula of "no-knead bread" or "Dutch oven bread" depends on a slow countertop fermentation, anywhere from 12 to 23 hours. Owsley believes Lahey provided this window of time to appease our busy lives but she promises your bread will turn out beautifully regardless of whether the dough sits for 14 or 20 hours. Owsley assembles her own dough up front, demonstrating that an endless array of delicious "mixers" can be added before leaving the dough to rise, including chunks of white cheddar, Kalamata olives or shredded Parmesan.

The second critical step to no-knead bread requires a cast iron or enameled ceramic Dutch oven (or heavy pot with a lid) to withstand the high baking temp of 450 F. The bread obtains its crackly crust and soft, chewy interior by self-steaming in the covered pot in the oven; commercial bakeries use convection ovens that automatically release moisture to achieve this same texture. Owsley prefers a timeworn clay pot that she inherited from her aunt, which requires pre-soaking, but I love using my 5-quart Lodge Dutch oven. This bread recipe fits inside perfectly and the pot comes out untarnished every time. You can use a Le Creuset pot but I warn you from experience: Remove your plastic lid handle with a screwdriver or it will corrode along with the color of your pot.

Using large poster boards to illustrate each step, Owsley wraps up her lesson before turning the stage over to Linda Barry. She presents recipes for dinner rolls, which she promises freeze beautifully, and a rustic peasant bread.

Barry demonstrates techniques for basic kneading, which she finds relaxing. For her, bread baking is more of a hobby than the necessity it was for her grandmother, who baked three times a week.

We leave with a thick packet of recipes, coupons and step-by-by instructions for baking off our dough at home. Students proudly share photos of their bread for the Eureka Emblem Cooking Classes Facebook page. Find the Eureka Emblem Cooking Series on Facebook or email suziecooks@yahoo.com for information. Next up, the Big Easy comes to Eureka on Oct. 19 for a Cajun cooking class led by world-traveled chef Louise Zuleger ($45). And already on the schedule for 2018, Emblem Club member Sandy Lambo will lead a class on Greek cuisine on Jan. 18.

Suzie Owsley's No-Knead Bread 

Adapted from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery. Makes 1 large loaf. Substitute 1 cup whole wheat flour for white or beer for 1 cup of the water for more flavor variation and fiber. Add 1 ½ cup Kalamata olives, chopped, squeezed and patted dry, to the initial mixture if desired. Just omit the salt if you do.

Ingredients:

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus flour for dusting (King Arthur recommended)

heaping ¼ teaspoon instant yeast and 1 ¼ teaspoon salt

2 cups water (tap is fine) at about 70 F

Instructions:

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add between 1 ¾ -2 cups water and stir until blended; dough will be sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for 12 to 23 hours at warm room temperature, about 70 F. Your kitchen counter works.

The dough is ready when its surface is lightly dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough on it. Sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton (not terry cloth) kitchen towel with flour. Put the dough seam side down on the cloth and dust with more flour. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it's ready, the dough will be more than doubled in size and won't spring back readily when poked with your finger.

At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready, heat the oven to 450 F. Put a 5- to 8-quart heavy covered pot with lid (cast-iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in the oven to heat. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Uncover the dough and slide your hand under the bottom towel to turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up; it's OK if it looks a mess. Shake the pan once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten during baking. Score the bread with a lame, (a French tool resembling razor blade) or a sharp knife to allow your loaf to expand while baking.

Replace the lid and bake 30 minutes before removing the lid and baking another 20 to 30 minutes, until the loaf is browned. Cool on a rack for 1 hour.

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