I never really thought of my Aunt Emily as my aunt. The youngest in my mother's family, she has always been more like a sister to me -- I’ve looked up to her, admired her complexity and the unique twists and turns of her life. She is quick to claim that as the baby of the family, she didn't do much for herself as a youngster. I find that hard to believe. Always adventurous, she's amazing -- a true role model for a bold and brave woman.
An OB/GYN, Aunt Em did her residency at Cornell in the heart of New York City. As a child I had always been fascinated with New York and as soon as I arrived to visit her the first time, I just knew I had to live there at some point. While Ms. Em already ranked high on the cool factor, her move to New York made her all the more fascinating! After that first night sleeping with the windows open in her tiny apartment with the sirens blaring and horns honking, I was hooked. I will never forget the next morning when, at age twelve, I walked to the corner market to buy a toasted bagel by myself with butter and cream cheese. I've often heard people say you either love it or hate -- I was intoxicated with New York.??
From New York, Aunt Em moved on to England for a few years, and then she settled in the most remote part of Colorado, a little town called Cortez. She was married to an equally exciting Englishman, John, who had tall tales of his childhood and even crazier stories of his time living all over the world. The two built a farm in felt like the middle of nowhere. There, they created a life for themselves that entailed hunting and foraging, perfecting their garden, and delving into winemaking. Once again I was blown away by Emily’s ability to adapt, excel, and forge a new life in a landscape so different from her previous one. It was in her Colorado home in my teens that I first tasted Ms. Em’s bread. I fell in love with this bread -- the taste and texture, hot and crunchy. Unaware of how simple the recipe is ---I thought her a master baker. She was self-taught, of course, and I assumed I could never perfect recipe myself. I had always loved to cook, even at a young age, but baking was just not for me. What a difference 15 years can make!
When I made it for the first time, I couldn’t believe its simplicity: flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and water. That’s all. This recipe taught me one of my favorite lessons about food and cooking: Simple is better. It’s the simple details, like the ice cold water and kosher salt, that make this bread flawless. It’s technique is so easy that you too may feel like a master baker after your first try. It may even inspire you to do exactly what I did, which was to make it over and over again for the last twelve years. I’ve even doubled and made this recipe fifteen times in one day for gifts and parties. This one is a winner and the only bread I make (other than biscuits, of course). I love adding coarse black pepper, and sometimes a little fresh grated parmesan and herbs to this staple.
This bread is more than perfect in its texture. It’s soft and moist on the inside and super crunchy on the outside. It’s great when plunged into a stew or a slow-simmered soup, and sinful when eaten just out of the oven with melted butter pooling in its crevices.
When on my wedding weekend, Aunt Em gifted me this heirloom recipe, I was overwhelmed. It's a part of my childhood that is now a staple at my family table.
Ms. Em’s Bread
Makes 1 loaf
1 packet dry yeast 1/4 cup warm water 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling on top 1 teaspoon sugar 1 1/2 cups chilled water 2 teaspoons olive oil 8-inch bread pan