I want to thank my oldest brother for introducing me to the concept of no-knead sibling rivalry.
You know how you kind of get stuck doing the same old thing? Not because it works, not because it's good. But because you'd rather avoid the “what-ifs” that await you on the other end.
What if the bread doesn't rise? What if your guests hate it? What if the crust is too hard, the center's too thick, or the flavor turns dull?
What if you find yourself surrounded by uncertain failure, when all along you could have settled for at least a sobering satisfaction in certain mediocrity?
The regular churchgoers out there no what I’m talking about. We’re a microcosm of habit, even if it is at the cost of our own comfort. Like my habit of staying in the same pew at church, even if the same unusually wide-headed man is always standing between me and my view of the pulpit. Like my habit of jumping into relationships regardless of whether or not said relationship truly gets the concept of the words “mi familia.”
My oldest brother tried convincing me more than three years ago to break out of my rut of using a KitchenAid mixer, kept so that I could faithfully stick to my childhood recipe: overmixed yeast, salt, flour and water, beaten into a dense, concrete-crusted loaf that could be used as a paperweight if not completely saturate my pores with gluten.
It was a nice mixer, and I got it as a wedding gift. Watching my brother use a no-knead, mixer-free, 24-hour method was like chalk against a blackboard. New ways are not the best ways, I grunted.
I tried ice cubes, more flour, less flour, no rising, some rising, a ridiculously long rising. Anything but surrender my KitchenAid mixer-method from one former marriage and another former fiancée.
Comes Thanksgiving. My nephews and nieces run buoyantly across the lawn under the watchful gaze of my elderly father. My mother enjoys a steady opportunity in two years of remission to bake her German ginger snaps.
Meanwhile, my oldest brother is on his first of four days away from his home in Ithaca, New York, shouldering my youngest nephew toward the local park for a mid-afternoon saunter. And I’m waiting to merge onto I-5 from River Road, for my third load to my new Stadium District apartment in just as many days.
And then it occurred to me. A habit? I would settle for all this, over a habit?
So, I tried it my brother's way. Three years and a few relationships later, I tried it his way. Not because he was right. Not because it worked. But because it was different.
I planned ahead (for a change). In a metal bowl I threw in a quarter teaspoon of instant yeast, a teaspoon and a quarter of salt, three cups of flour and a cup and a half plus two tablespoons of cool water. I mixed the ingredients by hand into a wet ball that stuck stubbornly to my fingers. I let the ball sit for 24 hours.
With the oven preheated to 500 degrees, I folded the ball two times on a floured surface. I flopped it into a covered cast-iron Dutch oven and baked it at 500 degrees. And then I waited for 25 minutes.
When I pulled that pot out of the oven, the once messy, wet mass of dough had turned into a richly caramelized-crusted loaf, with a light and fibrous center that permeated the air with billowing steam, as if it had come straight out of an artisan stone-oven bakery.
I nodded my head. The no-knead, no-mixer method was better.
And so was the bread.
Mario Peñalver has master's degrees in education from Pacific Lutheran University and in humanities from the University of Chicago. A community theater director and actor by night, by day he teaches English at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. On Twitter at @astramario.