A Thanksgiving baking project: almost-no-work bread

Well over a decade since I got into the habit of baking sandwich bread from scratch, I still remember how nervous I was at first about winding up with a deflated loaf. The recipe I’m sharing here cuts that risk as close to zero as possible; all it asks in return is about 24 hours of time.

Because I, too, am a little hesitant to try out a recipe with that much latency, I waited to try the “No-Work Bread” recipe in my well-read copy of Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything” (which you may have seen in the New York Times as “No-Knead Bread”). I shouldn’t have: This product of Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey is the most fault-tolerant bread recipe I know, and if you start it by mid-afternoon Wednesday you can have it ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

(My apologies if you’ll be spending Wednesday afternoon on highways or in the air. Maybe bookmark this for Christmas?)

  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 2/3 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups water, about 70 degrees
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal

Mix the flour and salt in a 2-quart bowl. Stir the yeast into the water, and after a few minutes mix that into the dry ingredients for longer than seems necessary. This may look like a mess, but as long as you don’t have any chunky bits left, you should be fine.

(Bittman’s original recipe calls for half a teaspoon of instant yeast, which I never buy because Costco sells regular yeast in a 2-pound package. The last time I made this, I forgot the 1:1.33 instant-to-active-yeast conversion and threw the non-instant yeast in with the dry ingredients. Everything turned out fine; as I said, fault-tolerant.)

Take a 3-quart bowl and coat it with the olive oil. Dump the dough into it, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it alone for about 18 hours. You’ll know it’s done, or close enough, when it’s risen to near the top and it’s covered with bubbles as if they were craters on the surface of the moon.

(While the dough enjoys that long rise, you may want to watch an episode of the Great British Baking Show for motivational purposes.)

Dust a clean surface with flour and pour the soggy dough onto it–taking a moment to enjoy the aroma of the risen, fermented yeast. Fold the dough over a couple of times into a ball, more or less, and cover it with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.

After that rest, scatter more flour on the dough and re-form it into a ball. Scatter the cornmeal on a silicone baking mat, wax paper, or a towel (as in, something that you can grab to lift the dough off the surface) and leave the dough ball there for two hours.

About an hour and 15 minutes into that last rise, put a 3- to 4-quart pot, cover included, into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. Half an hour later after hitting 450°, open the oven, remove the lid and dump the dough into the pot.

This is when the results–a damp glob slumped unevenly in the pot, part of it stuck to its side–may look like a culinary catastrophe. Ignore the untidy appearance, put the lid back on, and shove it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Open the oven, remove the lid and you should see that the bread has settled back into a somewhat flattened ball. Set the lid aside, close the oven and bake for another 20 minutes. If the crust looks browned like something in a real bakery, it’s done; otherwise, try another 10 minutes.

Let the bread cool for 30 minutes. Try not to eat it all at once.

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It’s been real, RFK

The circular shrine to crumbling concrete and peeling paint at 2400 East Capitol St. SE is about to lose its last reason for existence. More than 56 years after it opened, RFK Stadium will host D.C. United’s last home game–and then, with United moving to Audi Field next year, face a future of essentially nothing.

It’s been over 10 years since I’ve had a chance to inhale any of RFK’s fumes–since Sept. 23, 2007, when the Nationals closed out their three-year tenancy there with a 5-3 win over the Phillies. Beyond the win, the highlight of that afternoon was the “SHORT STILL STINKS” banner fans briefly hung from the outfield wall–a nod to the protest of fans at the Washington Senators’ final game at RFK in 1971 before villainous owner Bob Short moved the team to Texas.

Washingtonians tend to have long memories about RFK.

Mine start with the Rolling Stones concert I saw September of my freshman year at Georgetown, when anything east of Union Station seemed unimaginably distant from campus. I had neither the budget nor the interest to go to any Redskins games–even though our NFL franchise wasn’t objectively cursed at the time–but I did make my way back to RFK for the occasional mega-concert: U2 in 1992 (still the best show I’ve seen there), the Stones again in 1994 and U2 for a second time in 1997.

For Generation X D.C., however, “RFK + concert” will always equal “HFStival.” That all-day music festival put on by the long-gone modern-rock station WHFS packed the stadium and its parking lots every summer in the mid 1990s. I attended it two or three times as a paying fan–then covered it for the Post in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

Seeing Soul Aslyum, Tony Bennett (!) and the Ramones close out that first show from the risers was definitely one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments. So was taking a break from carrying a notebook around 1997’s show to try crowdsurfing for the first and only time.

I also saw one or two Skins games on other people’s tickets, then later went to a few D.C. United games, but it took most of the next decade before I got any regular acquaintance with RFK as a sports facility.

The Nats’ home opener in 2005 kicked off the place becoming a part of my life every summer for the next three years. I developed a profound acquaintance with the many ways a bad baseball team can lose games, along with how hot a 45,000-plus-seat concrete donut can get when no outside breeze reaches the stands.

But we did win a few games too. My favorite after the team’s debut: the Father’s Day victory over the Yankees in 2005, when Ryan Zimmerman belted a walk-off home run over the outfield wall to and the place erupted in bedlam. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard RFK get so loud.

Sunday, I’m going to see if RFK’s last home team can win one more there. Soon enough, RFK will become like the old 9:30 Club’s smell or National Airport’s Interim Terminal–something D.C. types of a certain age laugh knowingly about more than they actually miss. But first, I want to see those stands bounce one more time. Vamos, United!

Ranking my Nats postseason nightmares

It happened again. Of course it did.

The Nationals’ 9-8 loss to the Cubs in Thursday’s National League Division Series game 5 stands apart from the team’s other postseason exits for how utterly snakebit the Nats looked.

Barry Svrluga’s breakdown of the defeat only begins to capture what a shitshow this game was. The nightmare fifth inning alone–in which previously lights-out Max Scherzer got lit up for three hits, had a third strike turn into a run-scoring error when Matt Wieters dropped the ball and then airmailed it past Ryan Zimmerman (except play should have stopped after Javier Baez’s bat grazed his mask), saw the bases load on a catcher’s interference call, and walked in a run by hitting Jon Jay with a pitch–will haunt me for years.

But the upshot is the same as in 2012, 2014 and 2016: We lost a winnable division series in avoidable ways, leaving me with a strip of NLCS tickets to set on fire in the driveway before I wait to see which other city’s team gets to mob the infield after winning the World Series.

In the meantime, as an inveterate list-maker I feel compelled to rank the relative misery of our final home games in each postseason, all of which I’ve had the dubious privilege of witnessing in person.

4) 2014 NLDS game 2. Eighteen innings. Eighteen freezing innings. And all after we got within one out of a victory before robo-manager Matt Williams took out Jordan Zimmermann for Drew Storen because that’s what the book says to do. Giants 2, Nats 1, but we did still have three more chances to win–only one of which we took, leading to our fastest NLDS exit.

3) 2016 NLDS game 5. A great start by Scherzer turned to ashes in a horrible and prolonged (one hour and 5 minutes!) seventh inning that saw five relief pitchers give up four hits before Chris Heisey’s two-run shot in the bottom of the frame concluded our scoring in the series. Dodgers 4, Nats 3.

2) 2017 NLDS game 5. Seriously, this was grotesque. I’ve now attended maybe 250 Nationals games, and this one subjected me to onfield calamities I never thought I’d see even in the woeful seasons in which we lost over 100 times.

1) 2012 NLDS game 5. The worst. Witnessing a 6-0 lead collapse, inning by inning, into a 9-7 loss to the Cardinals ranks as my most painful sports memory ever.

And so the D.C. postseason curse grinds on. I would like to think that it will end in my lifetime, preferably before inflicting too much trauma on our daughter. But that’s also what I said to myself in 2012. And 2014. And 2016.

Thanks, Iota

My favorite bar in the D.C. area is pouring its last pint this weekend. That makes me sad.

When Iota Club and Cafe opened in the summer of 1994, Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood was nobody’s idea of a nightlife destination. You had some good and cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a few dive bars (though not enough to string together a proper bar crawl), and a surplus of used-car lots.

Iota helped change that. The place had great beer on tap, the owners booked good musicians–although the tiny stage in its initial cozy confines couldn’t accommodate more than a quartet of skinny people–and they didn’t slack off when it came to food. It worked for an indie-rock Saturday night and a recuperative brunch Sunday morning.

A search of my calendar shows a long list of both local musicians (Jenny Toomey, The Kennedys, Alice Despard) and better-known out-of-towners (Kristin Hersh, Mike Doughty) that I saw there. But the Iota act I caught most often was my former Post colleague Eric Brace’s band Last Train Home.

That roots-rock group provided the soundtrack for a lot of evenings out with friends, and then for many of my first dates with my wife.

As other bars and restaurants opened up, Iota expanded into two adjacent spaces. The larger stage made bringing an upright bass or a piano an option, while the kitchen raised its sights and started doing new-American dishes good enough for me to take my mom there.

(I wrote the non-bylined ode to Iota’s catfish wrap that ran in the Food section in 2006. I already miss that, along with the fries that came with it.)

Iota even got a prime-time shout-out when an episode of The West Wing had a few of its White House staffers head across the Potomac for an evening out. For years later, a framed copy of that script hung on one of Iota’s brick walls.

The past several years saw the place retrench a bit. Management took away the good tables and the nice tablecloths and pared back the menu to sandwiches–really good ones.

Parenthood put a major dent in my own attendance, and my less-frequent visits found fewer people in the place. When I stopped in before 5 a few Saturdays ago, I was the only customer in sight.

But what finally did in Iota was something too predictable in its changing neighborhood: a redevelopment proposal that would have forced the place to relocate for a couple of years, then most likely pay a higher rent.

The developer’s renderings of the expanded building included Iota’s black-and-white facade, but I wasn’t shocked, just sad to see Iota’s owners announce three weeks ago that it would close at the end of September.

Of course, Last Train Home returned to play two final nights at Iota; I caught the last two-thirds of Thursday’s set and was glad to see a few Post pals there.

Now I have to put Iota’s absence on my list of neighborhood sorrows, along with the demise of most of the Vietnamese places, all the dive bars, and some of the newer, fancier restaurants that couldn’t cover escalating rents.

I still prefer the Clarendon of 2017 to its identity of 20 years earlier–I can do almost all of my shopping on foot, and we couldn’t have bought our home without the condo I’d bought nearby in 2000 doubling in value over four years. But this progress hasn’t happened in a straight line or without costs.

Some of you reading this have probably never heard of Iota until now, and my words may not adequately express what made it special.

But you probably do have some quirky bar or restaurant nearby that’s been around a while, doesn’t attract all the beautiful people, doesn’t have much of a social-media game and can’t be found anywhere else. Why not stop in for a drink tonight or brunch tomorrow?

The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

When a work-from-home type gets a driving commute

One of the many ways I count myself lucky is that I haven’t had to drive to work since high school. No matter where I’ve lived around D.C, I’ve been able to get to my job by bus, Metro or on foot. And since 2011, I’ve only had to step into my home office.

But the past two summers have added a different sort of commute: our daughter’s various day camps. And as the person in the house with the most flexible schedule, it’s fallen to me to drive our kid to one camp or another most mornings. Sometimes it’s easier for me to pick her up in the afternoon as well.

Compared to the commutes most people endure around D.C., that’s left me nothing to complain about. I’m not sitting in traffic on I-66, the Dulles Toll Road or the Beltway; instead, I’m on neighborhood streets lined with trees and not enough big front porches. And the very worst day-camp commute I’ve had only ran some 20 minutes each way.

(The best day-camp commute involved a location barely half a mile away, so I could walk our child there and back–with some crankiness on her part.)

I sometimes feel like I’m engaged in commute cosplay as I sit at a stoplight, sip coffee out of a travel mug, listen to WAMU (of course I do), and then end the morning’s schlep without clocking a highway mile or crossing the Potomac.

I’d anticipated going back to my usual car-light routine with the start of school this week, but my wife’s broken clavicle means I’m the sole driver in the house through sometime in October. It could be worse. I mean, our daughter could go back to demanding that the same two CDs be on heavy rotation all the time. And outside of picking her up from extended-day care at school, I still barely have to drive anywhere.

That makes now a good time to contemplate the benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood… as if having the second half of this year’s property tax come due next month didn’t give us reason enough.

What part of “Share the Road” can’t some drivers understand?

My wife has an mercifully short commute to work, which most days she speeds up by biking there. Friday morning, that route led to a detour through an X-ray machine and a CT scanner.

The fault: an idiot driver who attempted to make a left turn from a center, no-turn lane by signaling late and then turning into my wife’s path. She braked hard, fell off the bike and landed on her shoulder. The resulting damage: a fractured clavicle bone and some scrapes, plus a few weeks of having to get through everyday chores with her left arm in a sling.

The driver, meanwhile, continued on. It’s unclear whether passerby will be able to identify this menace.

At one level, I’m angry to see this reckless disregard for any human beyond one’s own windshield, much less my spouse. A driver like that could also threaten me when I’m walking around the neighborhood, or my neighbors, or any of our kids.

At another level, I don’t know why this happened to my wife and not me. She is an exceptionally careful cyclist–she was wearing a reflective vest Friday, just in case–while I have been much more foolish, especially in my younger days. (If I blew by you going the opposite way on the W&OD Trail or the Cap Crescent 15 or 20 years ago, I’m sorry; I was a jackass.) And I’ve clocked several thousand more miles on two wheels. By that statistic alone, I should have taken this hit, not her.

What I do know: If you can’t share the road, do the rest of us a favor and get off the road until you can strap yourself into a self-driving car that, unlike you, will at least be programmed to obey the laws of the U.S. and the laws of physics.