In The Family
Taste Crown Icon
Meet the Woman Behind the Internet’s Favorite Bread Recipe

For rookie bread bakers of the world, Alexandra Stafford has the perfect place to start.

The trick to a perfect homemade loaf of bread is a ten-dollar glass Pyrex bowl. Well, two of them, to be exact. These humble bowls are the secret ingredient in Alexandra Stafford’s infamous peasant-bread recipe that broke the food Internet when it was published on her blog, Alexandra Cooks, in 2012. It was a recipe her mother had made over and over again, for a round loaf with a perfectly textured spongy inside and a salty, golden crust, and it remained a secret until the Internet demanded she reveal it.

Stafford’s success is the stuff of food blogger dreams: She started a blog, said blog became hugely popular, and a book deal appeared. Well, it wasn’t exactly that easy. After receiving her culinary degree and honing her skills as a sous chef under the tutelage of Vietnamese chef Tien Ngo at Fork in Philadelphia, she worked as a food writer at a local newspaper, a caterer, and an editor, and eventually moved to upstate New York, by way of Virginia, with her husband to raise their growing family.

As her blog audience grew, readers picked up on her guarded bread recipe: They saw the golden loaves here and there in photos for other dishes and demanded she share it. Eventually, like a brilliantly orchestrated PR stunt (although I don’t believe it was intended that way), her mother relented, and the recipe made its Internet debut. It’s been shared millions of times and has quickly swelled her loyal readership. The next logical step was Bread, Toast, Crumbs, a “nose to tail’ book of bread, all based around her mother’s mythic recipe.

Alexandra Stafford

There are close to 40 variations on the classic recipe, like Pumpkin Harvest Bread, Kalamata Olive Bread, and Einkorn With Sesame, Onion, and Chives, plus a dozen or so toasts. But the book opens up to include bread in all of its life-forms—in recipes for Broiled Striped Bass and Rack of Lamb With Bread-Crumb Chimichurri. Fresh breadcrumbs from the peasant bread make killer meatballs.

This isn’t exactly a cookbook for bakers. It’s based on a no-knead, no-frills recipe. The genius idea of the buttered Pyrex bowls came from her mother, who was frustrated with recipes that produced an unwieldy blob of dough on a sheet pan that had to be kneaded over and over.

At first I rolled my eyes at the simple recipe. It’s just four cups flour, two cups water, one packet of instant yeast, one teaspoon each of salt and sugar. After making the recipe only once, I can recite that from memory. (Don’t believe me? Ask the Pyrex dishes.) I’m not much of a baker, but when I spoke to Stafford about the book, she assured me I’ll be fine: “When I hear people are afraid of making bread, I just send them this recipe and assure them that it’s so easy.”

Stafford estimates she’s made over 500 loaves of peasant bread in her lifetime: “At one point during the bread recipe-testing phase, I was plowing through a 25-pound sack of King Arthur Flour a week.” She’s a true evangelist, graciously bringing two of her beloved glass Pyrex bowls for me from her collection when we meet in the city (she currently has 18 of them).

I finally took the plunge. I made the peasant bread, and it was, as promised, one of the easiest, most satisfying recipes I’ve ever made, and the entire floor of my building smelled like a Parisian alley outside a patisserie. The butter seeps into the perfectly golden crust, making the dramatic extraction of the bread from the bowl the most fun part (spoiler: they tumble out gracefully). But don’t take my word for it—her recipe has been shared over 4 million times. People comment on the post every single day, still. It took years to get it just right. “I made the peasant bread for years using active dry yeast, and when I discovered instant yeast and how easy it was, stirring it into the flour, the only trick is to make sure your water isn’t too hot,” she says. “When you get the simple recipes right, it’s just so satisfying.”

A few pages after the peasant bread recipe is, in my humble opinion, the best in the book: a recipe for pissaladière, a Provencal tart made with onions, anchovies, olives, and capers that uses the same dough. Instead of making two classic peasant loaves, as Stafford suggests, I used half to make this focaccia-like thing as a dinner starter. Because salt, in all its forms, but especially anchovies and olives, is my favorite food, the pissaladière did not disappoint.

Though it might sound cheesy, there’s one theme that permeates the book: a mother’s love. A picture of Alexandra in the kitchen with her mother and her four children opens the book, and many of the recipes invoke long mornings making bread with her mother. But her peasant bread isn’t just an old-fashioned recipe for housewives—it’s the result of generations of testing, repetition, and feedback. She says, “Many of these recipes, I’ve found, become second nature, because when you take the time to bake bread from scratch, you want to make it last as long as possible.” She’s right.

Since making my first loaves, I’ve purchased an additional two bowls so that I can work in larger batches. There’s something indescribably rewarding about making a loaf of bread, and Stafford has erased all of the pomp and circumstance. Her bread recipe makes you feel like you’ve been let in on a carefully guarded secret spell that only you (and 4 million others) can cast.

No-Knead Peasant Bread

No-Knead Peasant Bread

2 14-ounce loaves

Ingredients

  • 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2¼ teaspoons instant yeast
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • softened butter, for greasing

Here it is. The no-knead bread recipe my mother has been making for 40 years, the one she taught me to make 20 years ago, the recipe I published on my blog in 2012, the recipe that inspired the creation of every recipe in my book. This formula is simple—4 cups flour, 2 cups water, 2 teaspoons each salt and sugar, and 2¼ teaspoons yeast—and can be adapted in countless ways. Make it once as described below, then tailor it to your liking.

Reprinted from Bread Toast Crumbs. Copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Stafford. Photographs by Eva Kolenko. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and instant yeast. Add the water. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the water is absorbed and the ingredients form a sticky dough ball.
  2. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot (see page 16) to rise for 1 to 1½ hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk.
  3. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 425°F. Grease two 1-quart oven-safe bowls with the softened butter—be generous. Using two forks, deflate the dough by releasing it from the sides of the bowl and pulling it toward the center. Rotate the bowl in quarter turns as you deflate, turning the mass into a rough ball.
  4. Using your two forks and working from the center out, separate the dough into two equal pieces. Use the forks to lift each half of the dough into a prepared bowl. If the dough is too wet to transfer with forks, lightly grease your hands with butter or oil, then transfer each half to a bowl. Do not cover the bowls. Let the dough rise on the countertop near the oven (or another warm, draft-free spot) for 10 to 20 minutes, until the top of the dough just crowns the rims of the bowls.
  5. Transfer the bowls to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375°F and bake for 17 to 20 minutes more, until evenly golden all around. Remove the bowls from the oven and turn the loaves out onto cooling racks. If the loaves look pale, return them to their bowls and bake for 5 minutes longer. Let the loaves cool for 15 minutes before cutting.

Ingredients

  • For the Dough
  • 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • For Assembly
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
  • 3 cups sliced onions (about 3 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced)
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 4 anchovies
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped pitted kalamata or niçoise olives
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes

The base of pissaladière, the Provençal tart topped with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives, can be a pastry shell, a flat round of pizza dough, or even puff pastry. Here, focaccia is the base for a mix of stewed onions and fresh tomatoes, a sweet contrast to the accompanying puree of anchovies, capers, and garlic. Make this bread for an end-of-summer gathering, when the tomatoes are bountiful and the weather is hinting of fall. Present it cut into squares on your largest cutting board. It keeps well at room temperature for up to 4 hours.

Reprinted from Bread Toast Crumbs. Copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Stafford. Photographs by Eva Kolenko. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

  1. Make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and instant yeast. Add the water. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the liquid is absorbed and the ingredients form a sticky dough ball. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for 1 to 1½ hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk.
  2. Meanwhile, assemble the pissaladière: In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over high heat. When it begins to shimmer, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring every few minutes, until the onions are lightly golden, about 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, in a food processor, mince the garlic and anchovies together. Add 2 tablespoons oil and blend until smooth. Add the capers and pulse to coarsely chop. Set aside.
  4. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 425°F. Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper or coat with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons oil on the sheet pan. Using two forks, deflate the dough by releasing it from the sides of the bowl and pulling it toward the center. Rotate the bowl in quarter turns as you deflate, turning the mass into a rough ball. Use the forks to lift the dough onto the prepared sheet pan. Roll the dough ball in the oil to coat it all over. Let it rest without touching it for 20 minutes.
  5. With lightly greased hands, press down on the dough, using all 10 fingers to dimple and stretch the dough outward. Pull gently on the ends and stretch them toward the corners of the sheet pan. When the dough begins to resist being stretched, let it rest for 5 minutes, then stretch it again, continuing until it fits most of the sheet pan.
  6. Spread the anchovy puree over the surface of the dough. Scatter the olives, caramelized onions, and then the tomatoes on top. Use all 10 fingers again to dimple the dough and gently stretch it.
  7. Transfer the sheet pan to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the underside is golden and crisp. Remove the pissaladière from the oven and transfer it to a cutting board. Let it cool for 10 minutes before cutting it into squares.

Ally-Jane Grossan

Ally-Jane Grossan is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and photographer. Find her at ally-jane.com.

[email_signup id="3"]