FIRE, CLAY, FLOUR
Photos by Michael Piazza
On a hot July day, artist Judy Motzkin is in her Cambridgeport studio, adding a quotation from Robert Browning to the lid of one of the 30-or-so BreadPots that await firing in her kiln: “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” Motzkin, a well-regarded ceramicist whose beautiful “smoke-fired” pottery can be found in the permanent collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, now divides her time between her artwork and producing pottery for cooking food. Baking bread, specifically: Motzkin is the creator of the BreadPot, a handmade, covered clay vessel that functions as a miniature oven for a single loaf of bread.
The BreadPot was born out of necessity. “One of the funny things about my career is that all the best things I’ve done have come right out of my life,” she tells me. “… either emotionally important experiences, some event, or because I’ve needed something. And this is a good example of that.”
Judy baked bread in her younger days, but she’d never been particularly happy with the results. The breads tended to come out very dense. “My instinct was to knead it like a potter,” she recalls. “I’d take air out instead of putting it in. And it was too much of a production—you’d have to bake four loaves at a time—so I just stopped.”
Years later, several friends encouraged her to try the “no-knead” bread baking method popularized by Jim Lahey of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery and Mark Bittman of the New York Times. The technique is almost entirely hands off: you simply mix flour, salt, and yeast with enough water to make a very wet dough. And instead of kneading it, you let time—along with enzymes present in the flour itself—do the work for you. After 18-24 hours or so, what begins as a shaggy, sticky mass will have assembled itself, almost miraculously, into a smooth, cohesive dough, ready to be baked.
This approach to baking appealed to Judy immediately. “What’s not to like about it?” she asks. “It just fits into your kitchen in such a seamless, everyday way.” As did the results, which were as light and delicate as her earlier efforts had been dense: “That’s when I understood: the less I handle my bread, the better it is.”
The “hands-free” approach isn’t the only novel element of Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe. Once the dough is ready, it is shaped into a round and then—after a short second rise—baked inside a covered, preheated cast-iron Dutch oven. While lack of kneading is what makes the recipe easy, it’s the Dutch oven that makes it so good. With it, nearly anyone can produce breads with the sort of shattering crust and airy interior to rival those from the best boulangeries anywhere.
The reasons why are twofold. First, the density and mass of the Dutch oven holds loads of heat, which it transfers quickly and efficiently to the dough. This lets the dough expand rapidly to produce a lofty, spherical loaf with a holey interior. Secondly, the pot’s heavy lid traps moisture released from the dough to produce steam. Steam conducts heat to the surface of the dough much more rapidly than air alone, and it keeps the exterior of the bread soft and elastic, both of which ensure maximum rise. Most importantly, it alters surface starches to produce a shiny, crackly crust once the loaf is fully baked. (These reactions occur during the first half of the baking period; once the loaf has fully expanded and the crust has begun to set, the lid is removed to release the steam and let the crust brown.)
While Lahey and Bittman deserve credit for bringing the Dutch oven bread baking method to the attention of the food world, the technique has actually been around for a long time, and predates the advent of ovens themselves. While the earliest loaves of bread were simply baked on hot stones in the embers of a fire, by the Bronze age bakers in Europe were placing inverted pots over the dough to protect it from the ashes and—presumably—improve the texture of the bread. By the nineteenth century, bread was being baked in specialized ‘kettles’, which were heavy-lidded iron pots that sat on a tripod over the fire. In other words, Dutch ovens.
Like so many others who gave Lahey’s recipe a try, Judy found herself quickly hooked, and began using it on a regular basis. And after a year or so, she’d managed to destroy the plastic handle on the lid on her husband’s prized Le Creuset Dutch oven. Despite their heft and sturdiness, these pots were never meant to be subjected to such high temperatures, and their plastic lid handles disintegrate sooner or later when used to bake bread repeatedly. (Most manufacturers have since redesigned their pots to withstand the sort of abuse that no-knead bakers dish out.)
In need of a new pot to bake in, the moment gave her an opportunity to consider whether she couldn’t improve upon things at the same time. “To my mind [the Dutch oven] was too big, because the wet dough was sort of sagging in there and coming out shallow, and I wanted a boule,” she recalls. She tried baking in a smaller pot, and liked the result. Then, in 2009, that pot mysteriously disappeared from her kitchen, leaving her without a baking vessel at all. That’s when the idea for the BreadPot first emerged. “What am I going to use now?” she wondered. The answer came in a flash. “You’re a potter, just make one! It was as simple as that.”
Simple in theory, at least. “The first one came out really bad,” she says. “I used the wrong kind of stoneware and it got overfired. It had these giant blisters inside it. It came out ugly like a 1960’s brown pot.” Undaunted, she gave it to a friend who was a serious baker to put it through the paces and give her feedback on its design. Its aesthetic deficiencies aside, the pot worked beautifully. The texture of the bread was just as good as one baked in a Dutch oven, and the sloping sides of the pot did indeed do a better job of containing the slack dough to produce a more spherical loaf.
Still, there was plenty of room for improvement. The pot was a little on the small side, and its handles were fragile and difficult to grasp. In order to sort out how best to refine the design, she made six more and then turned to Facebook to find others to test them out for her. She then set up a blog for her testers to share their ideas on improvements.
“It was like having a little focus group of my own,” she says. Soon, participants were comparing notes with one another and swapping recipes. Every so often, she’d ask the group for their opinion on a new design element. “For example, I’d started putting the recipe inside of the lid, and I said, What do you think of that? Everybody went, yeah, yeah, yeah—do that. It was a fun way to do it, because it started building community right from the get go.”
Within less than a year of testing and feedback, the basic design of the BreadPot fell into place: slightly curved, sloping sides ideal for producing a boule; wide, sturdy handles integrated into the pot itself; and a lid with a handle just the right size for grabbing with a potholder. During this time, she also introduced the “BreadBell”, a vessel in which the bread baked on a flat clay disc under a bell-shaped lid, which allowed the bread to bake into a more traditional, flat-bottomed loaf shape.
Since they first went on sale, Judy estimates that she’s sold somewhere between 250 and 300 BreadPots, mostly through word-of-mouth. Each pot takes about a week to make; working full-time, she can produce about 10 pots in tandem over that time. Lately, to keep up with increasing demand, she’s begun teaching apprentice potters to make them for her.
Judy readily admits that the appeal of BreadPots goes beyond their functionality. Aside from producing a loaf of a slightly different shape, they perform no better than a Dutch oven. But still she has a hard time keeping pots in stock. “Would they sell as well if they weren’t such a pretty shape?” she wonders. “People often buy them and say, ‘Oh I could just leave this out on my counter. You can put your fruit in it.’”
Though the design of the BreadPots continues to evolve slightly with each batch Judy makes—it’s how she keeps what can otherwise be tedious work interesting—she’s less inclined to vary her bread recipe, which has stayed pretty much the same since she began using the no-knead method: white flour, some rye, yeast, salt, and a “handful”—as she specifies it in the recipe card she includes with each BreadPot—of caraway or nigella seeds. She finds it a satisfying, healthful, and versatile recipe—equally good with a dollop of raspberry jam as it is with a mound of juicy pastrami and a smear of mustard.
As the creator of the BreadPot, she gets a lot of questions from customers—and others who assume she’s spent as much time fiddling with her recipes as she has perfecting the Breadpots—about how they might improve their breads. “I write back,” she says, “’I’m so not your bread guru. Just go online and look it up, it’ll be better than asking me. I’m a master potter—that’s what I do. I just bake bread on the side.”
She and a friend were once discussing the Chinese and Southwestern influences on her artistic ceramic work. The friend asked her, “How come you don’t make anything that’s from your own culture?” Judy’s response was that she wasn’t sure how her own heritage might come out through her pottery, if at all.
But the question stuck with her. “The bread I make is my father’s favoriteNew Yorkcorn rye with seeds,” she says. “Russian Jewish rye, my culture. And I recalled that conversation with my friend and thought: ‘I’m making something from my own culture now. And I made the pot to bake it in.’”
Judy’s BreadPots are available through her website: http://www.motzkin.com/breadpots.htm
Andrew Janjigian is an Associate Editor for Cook’s Illustrated Magazine and a regular contributor to Serious Eats. He lives inCambridge, with his partner and his wood-fired oven. He can be reached on Twitter at @wordloaf