no-knead bread

A couple of years ago, on November 8, 2006, an article in the New York Times on no-knead bread caused rippled around the food-blogging world. Esteemed cookbook author Mark Bittman adapted professional baker Jim Leahy’s recipe for his ongoing food and recipe series in the New York Times. From there, it went across the web.

Supposedly, the original recipe became so popular that – because it’s dangerous to knobs on Le Creuset pots – those knobs were being widely stolen. Following links dealing with this supposed theft back, I get to here. The proof is thin enough that this story may well be urban legend.

Bittman returned to the challenge of the recipe, developing another version which was higher in whole wheat and had a shorter proofing time of only four hours, a third to a fifth of the originally-recommended duration. Others took up the challenge of variation too, including the first of the two mentions of it I ran across this week. Pim Techamuanvivit, in The Foodie Handbook (2009), compares and contasts Leahy’s original recipe with Bittman’s variation, and tries her own variations, from a purple loaf to one using her own sourdough starter. (pp. 207-212) She also quotes that knob theft story.

The second time I encountered the recipe this week was on the blog Lottie + Doof, in a post entitled Pizza (Pulp Fiction + Jim Leahy), where the comments wandered into a confusion of just who to credit with the no-knead recipe. It’s not a one-part transmission story since both Bittman’s multiple variations and Leahy’s own version are publicly available. Leahy’s boost from Bittman led to the title of his next cookbook, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method (2009).

It’s also not a one-part transmission story because Leahy didn’t invent no-knead bread. He refined and adapted existing recipes, so he certain deserves credit for that, as well as his role in bringing it to Bittman’s attention. The oldest no-knead recipe which Google News offers is from The Milwaukee Journal, 1945. It cites “a baking expert who has perfected this method which entirely eliminates the task of kneading bread”. The recipe is fast, but – among other things – doesn’t make use of the later addition of a Dutch oven to retain moisture during baking. The recipe was probably taken from a Pillsbury pamphlet produced in that same year, “Bake the No-Knead Way”. (Mentioned in this article.) It was developed by Ellen Pennell, working for Pillsbury Mills, as the director of Ann Pillsbury home service activities.

Even as Bittman came back to make a whole wheat version of Leahy’s recipe, so too did Milwaukee Journal readers request a whole wheat version of the no-knead recipe they’d printed; it was published only a few weeks after the first. Skipping ahead, past a moderate handful of other mentions and versions, a 1981 article from The Sumter Daily Item observes that “If you browse through the pages of your grandmother’s cookbook, you’ll provably [sic] find a few yeast bread recipes that require no kneading….” The article’s suggested improvement on “your grandmother’s cookbook” was to microwave the loaf, instead of baking. I have no idea how good or inedible a microwaved loaf would be.

In 1982, cookbook authors Carol Bates and Ceri Vaughan authored The Easy No-Knead Bread Book. Bates, along with Sylvia Isaac, wrote a 1987 followup, The Even Easier No-Knead Bread Book. Without immediate access to those, I can’t say what they added or changed about the process, but they certainly will have helped publicize it to some degree.

To observe that versions of no-knead bread pre-date Bittman’s 2006 article in no way disparages what Bittman and Leahy have achieved. I don’t know that a Dutch oven was involved in the process before Leahy, and its retention of moisture is, from all accounts, one of the major reasons why the recipe is so popular. Bittman was the popularizer; Leahy’s recipe wouldn’t necessarily have ever gained a fraction of its current fame without him. (I do idly notice that the recipe achieved its modern fame by means of two men; the rest of its history is, as far as I have traced it, developed by women.)

The importance of PR should never be underrated. Just because something exists, doesn’t mean anyone knows about, to be able to use and take advantage of it. After all, I bet you’d never heard of Ellen Pennell before today, the original developer and publicizer of no-knead bread. Or was she? It wouldn’t surprise me at all to know that the recipe pre-dates 1945.


For all the hunting in the blockbuster movie Avatar, there isn’t a lot of eating. There isn’t a lot of agriculture either. Indeed, the only formal cultivation of native crops seems to be done by the humans, next to their base. If the native people, the Na’vi, are cultivating anything, it isn’t within several miles of their home.

There’s one major exception to the lack of food in this film, and it’s early on. The main character, Jake Sully, tests out his new native body for the first time, his avatar. Delighting in his functional legs, he breaks free of his hospital bed and runs out, across the base, and into cultivated native crops. There, another character tests his reflexes by tossing him a native fruit. If I remember correctly, the fruit is purple, laced with green, clearly marked as alien.

Sully catches it and, assuming it to be edible, bites into the juicy fruit and grins. Is it delight in the new taste experience, or the thrill of having command of his new body? How can taste experiences even be the same, when the body is almost entirely that of an alien species?

The fruit he catches is a “kxener”. (The plural is “kener”.) Kxener is one of two Na’vi fruit-words in the publicly-available vocabulary lists compiled from books which supplement the movie. The other is “kì’ong”. I can’t tell you what it refers to since I don’t have a copy of Avatar: The Field Guide to Pandora, but that there are only two fruit-or-vegetable words is telling of how little the non-meat edibles were fleshed out on the planet Pandora.

The Na’vi language, of which these two fruit-or-vegetable words are a part, was designed for the movie by linguist Paul Frommer. Since no one speaks it fluently, it’s technically an extinct language, although it already has more people interested in it than other dying languages, such as the remaining ten speakers of S’aoch in Cambodia. I’m not helping the disparity with this entry, however useful it is as another example of how hard it is to build up richly-textured artificial worlds.

Stardust Stew

Café World is a popular, poorly-animated restaurant-running game on Facebook. Currently, it has a small selection of alien foods available to serve in-game, such as Martian brain bake and alien sushi. One of these is named Stardust Stew. The lurid blue-green dish looks like onion soup, complete with cheese melted over the top and the sides of the bowl.

One “feature” of the game is that it reduces cooking preparation to mere three steps of active intervention. In this case, the steps are as follows:

  1. Chop fusion rods
  2. Sift stars
  3. Dice Gort root

After those steps, it’s left to boil. (Not simmer.) The short-hand recipe is not meant to be comprehensible – it’s alien cuisine – but the verbs are all still English so, at a certain level, the reader can still follow along with the method of cooking. Still, what kind of stars are these that we can sift them? What kind of kitchen gizmo (and protective equipment) would be required to chop fusion rods? Gort root looks kind of like ginger; does it grow like ginger too? How large a pot does this recipe require?

Speaking of stardust and stew, and since stew is on my mind from working on edits on a related article, stew appears regularly in the Neil Gaiman novel, Stardust. Secondary characters eat bowlfuls of mutton stew, while the hero consumes an apparently meat-free one of vegetables, beans, and barley. (Gaiman uses stew in most of his fantasy novels.) I would go into more detail, but I don’t know where I’ve mislaid my copy; there’s only so far Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature and Google Books between them can compensate for a wandering physical copy.


A dapifer is “one who brings meat to the table”. Its literal meaning is far more interesting for its potential modern uses than for its historical function. daps is Latin for food or feast, originally, as a Greek-derived word, a ceremonial or sacrificial feast, but later, post-Augustus, any kind of feast or banquet. A -fer is a bearer or holder of something.

In Latin, dapifer is a word which evolved to mean “butler” or, more commonly, “steward” or “seneschal”. The job title was fairly widely used in the Middle Ages, with several dapifers listed in the Domesday book. Eudo Dapifer is the most frequently cited of these as he was steward to William the Conqueror. The 1355 Golden Bull, or charter, of the Holy Roman Empire, which specified imperial election procedures, dictated that the count palatine act as dapifer for the coronation.

It was used in English as a Latin import by the mid-seventeenth century, initially by Richard Braithwait, prolific and highly-educated author and poet, as a synonym for a specific rank of courtly household officer, i.e. steward, in his book, The Lives of all the Roman Emperors (1636). Thomas Reeve, charmingly, used it metaphorically in 1657 in his God’s plea for Nineveh, or, London’s precedent for mercy, when he wrote, “Thou art the dapifer of thy palate.” (Quoted from the OED since there are no freely-available copies I can find off-hand online.)

Modern uses of the word for anything other than a description of a historical office are scarce. Diana Norman wrote a pair of historical novels, A Catch of Consequences and Taking Liberties, involving a main character, an English noble, named Philip Dapifer. There are also various streets named after one past dapifer or other. (Eudo again, in the case of Colchester.)

I’d like to think there’s room to revive dapifer’s basic meaning. Vegetarians and vegans would avoid them at meal times. They might work at barbecue restaurants or rotisseries. At home, they may or may not bring home the bacon, but they would certainly make sure that the bacon did not languish in the kitchen when there was a table to bring it to.

lamb’s wool

9 November 1666. Samuel Pepys had had an anxious day, what with the Horse Guards building being on fire, and this after all the other fires which 1666 had wrought on the City of London, Westminster, and Southwark. By the evening, news came that the fire was out. Delighted and relieved, Pepys and friends celebrated: “We got well home … Being come home, we to cards, till two in the morning, and drinking lamb’s-wool.”

Lamb’s wool is a drink made of ale, apple purée, nutmeg, ginger, and sugar. It was popular in the seventeenth century, when Pepys mentioned it in his diary and Robert Herrick composed a verse in a wassail song, describing its ingredients. Herrick was a poet more earnest than good, but his verses include some of the best records of early seventeenth-century twelfth night practices.

In “Twelfe night, or King and Queene”, published in his poetry collection, Hesperides, he writes of the choosing of the King and Queen of Twelfth night through beans, baked into a plum cake.

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Beane’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The Pea also
Must revell, as Queene, in the Court here.

In its fourth verse, it describes lamb’s wool:

Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle lambs-wooll;
Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must doe
To make the wassaile a swinger.

The origin of the name “lamb’s wool” is contested, although my favorite version is that it is named for its froth. The Old Foodie discusses alternate name origins in a post on the subject.

Because this historic drink is so well-documented, modern recipes for it are moderately common. Today would be an appropriate day to mix one up, in fact. Pepys drank it in November since lamb’s wool was common during apple harvest season, but it is also – as Herrick attests – a drink with which to celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas. Rather than the noisiness of twelve drummers drumming, consider a mug of lamb’s wool.

*© S. Worthen 2009