Beth Macy

On silence, jumpy herons and knead-free bread

WHITE STONE — Hope Reese works as an events assistant for the Nieman Foundation.  I can say without certainty after spending five months hanging around the place: She’s the glue of the organization — the person all the fellows go to when they need help with anything, including recommendations for the Three B’s: bands, bars and bargains. She’s enthusiastic and generous, and she gets more done in a day than most of us do in a week.

So when the opportunity arose recently for me to pay her back for the few thousand favors I already owe her, I leapt. She wanted to visit Williamsburg, Va., where her grandmother and namesake worked as a journalist for The Virginia Gazette in the ’70s and ’80s. Her grandmother Hope passed away when Hope was just 10, long before her interested in journalism was sparked, so Hope Junior wanted to do find out about Hope Senior’s career and the influence she’d had on young journalists of her day.

I happen to have an uncle Frosty with a beautiful (and, happily for us, available) river house in White Stone, Va., an hour or so away from Williamsburg, and so I also jumped at the chance to have some quiet writing time here while Hope was off doing her thing. A bargain-hunter extraordinaire — she’s addicted to a Web site called Groupon, such that she’s even achieved “Groupie” status — Hope even found us a cheap flight on Air Tran to Newport News ($59 each way), where we rented a shiny red tin can (Nissan Versa) for four days.

I’ve never been to the river in winter before, so I’m glad I’ve finally had the chance — even if it did take forever to get to sleep last night in Frosty’s spooky, creaky 200-year-old house all by my lonesome. (Hope was away at a friend’s house in Williamsburg for the night.)

It was too cold to go kayaking today — not sure I can get used to seeing snow on the beach! — but after six hours of writing I managed a 40-minute walk along the Rappahannock, which is lovely this time of year and easier to navigate somehow without running into marshland or other people’s piers, as is usually the case. Somehow, some way, and don’t ask me to explain it, but the shoreline has thickened up, allowing a wider berth for beach-walking than usual. I was able to walk most of the way to Windmill Pointe, where I scared a heron perched in the marsh — and it definitely scared me.

By the time I returned, the miracle knead-free bread that Hope had started before she left — it requires a first rising of 18 hours! — was ready to bake. A sublime creation, it has a perfectly crunchy/chewy crust, thanks to the cornmeal and the cast-iron skillet I baked it in. (Ideally, you’d bake it in a cast-iron Le Creuset, a Dutch oven. But you gotta deal with the cookware you’re dealt.) A Mark Bittman recipe (you can watch his New York Times video here), it’s holey and wondrous — perfect for the pooling of butter — not unlike ciabatta, only without much effort.

Hope’s Miracle Bread

3 cups flour

Teaspoon or so of salt

Half-packet of yeast

1 5/8 cup of water

In a glass mixing bowl, combine ingredients and stir, but don’t overwork. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 18 hours.

Sprinkle a little more flour on top, then lay down a tea towel on the counter and sprinkle it with a liberal handful of cornmeal. Place the dough on top of the cornmeal-topped towel and put plastic wrap over top for 15 minutes.

After 2 1/2 hours, preheat the oven with the cast-iron Dutch oven inside for 30 minutes. (Hope said not to oil the pan, but I didn’t believe her and did it anyway.)

Being careful not to burn yourself, pull out the oven rack, remove the lid and then carefully nudge the dough from the tea towel into the pot. Shake dough around ever-so-slightly so that it evens out a bit. Return lid and bake at 450 for a half-hour, then remove the lid, and bake a half-hour more.

When the bread-making wunderkind texts (or is it textes?) you to make sure you’ve done everything according to her strict instruction, tell her: Yeah, you got it. And save her a piece or two.

Oh, and check out Hope’s new blog here for updates on her namesake project.

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