MY FRIEND NANCY knew that I often baked bread using Jim Lahey’s no-knead approach, using the Dutch oven to make a crusty round or oval loaf. She’d tried a lot of Lahey’s recipes, and one favorite was the stecca (“stick” in Italian), a small and thin baguette-like loaf that incorporates olive oil as well as the usual flour-water-salt and yeast combo and is baked on a baking sheet rather than a Dutch oven. Nancy’s partner, Duane, is Steve’s brother, and he would gladly eat stecca every day. After Steve and I tried it at their home in California, we fell in love with it too, so Nancy copied the recipe for me.
When I got home, I made it once or twice. It was a little messy — as Nancy had warned me, the tea towel was permanently marred by impossible-to-remove oil stains–but very, very good. Still, maybe because it was a bread that should be eaten in a day or two rather than a loaf to last for days (sometimes almost a week), I forgot about it and didn’t make it again for a year or two.
That all changed recently. I came across the recipe and thought I’d try it again. It was so easy — as long as I started it the night before we wanted to eat it — and made a wonderful accompaniment to soup or salad. It was delectable on its own with a bit of butter or some cheese. I made it again and again, playing around with variations, substituting a bit of whole wheat flour, sometimes adding seeds to the top.
Now I’m making it often, but only half a recipe at a time. Not that we couldn’t eat four stecca loaves in two days (it would be very easy to eat a stecca loaf by oneself in one sitting, especially if it’s still warm from the oven) — but it’s probably better if we don’t.
Isn’t it amazing what just 1/4 of a teaspoon (or 1/8 in the half recipe) will do, given a bit of time? Maybe there’s a moral there: Give it time.
I tweaked Jim Lahey’s recipe just a little. This is the recipe for four little sticks of bread.
- 2 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 3/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon yeast (instant or regular)
- 1 1/2 cups cool water
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt; (sesame or other seeds optional)
- cornmeal and additional flour for dusting
- In a medium bowl, stir together both flours, table salt, sugar and yeast. Add the water, and using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until it comes together as a wet, sticky dough. Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature until it is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled, 12 to 18 hours (a few more won’t hurt).
- When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl. Fold the dough over itself two or three times and gently shape it into a somewhat flattened ball. (If it is too sticky, you may need to first add a little more flour, but it should still be quite a moist dough).
- Place a tea towel on the work surface and generously dust it with cornmeal. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down, and brush the top with some of the olive oil. Sprinkle top with 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and a light dusting of cornmeal. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place in a warm draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled, and when you gently poke it with your finger it holds the impression.
- Half an hour before the end of the second rise (approximately) preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. with a rack in the center. Lahey says to oil your 13-by-18 baking pan, but sometimes I don’t oil, and it’s been fine.
- Cut the dough into quarters. Gently stretch each piece more or less evenly (mine is always a little uneven, but it’s part of the charm) approximately the length of the pan. Brush with olive oil (you may not need the entire 1/4 cup) and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt. Sprinkle with sesame, poppy or other seeds if you like.
- Bake for 14 to 20 minutes (I find it’s done at 14 or 15 minutes), until the crust is golden brown. Cool on the pan for five minutes, then transfer the stecca to a rack to cool (or not, if you must have some now).
NOTE: The crust of the stecca is thinner than a baguette, and the combination of the oil and salt may make it soggy in just a few hours. You can reheat the loaves in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes until the crust crisp but watch carefully — the stecca is so thin that it may turn into a cracker very quickly!