Oh. My. Goodness.
I am addicted. Not that I wasn't a carb junkie before, but this bread banishes Atkins and South Beach from my vocabulary for EVAH.
Hang on, I'll be right back. I need more toast….
Okay, I'm all set now. Please excuse the crumbs.
But first things first.
The recipe comes from Bread Alone, by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik. The subtitle promises "Bold Fresh Loaves From Your Own Hands." This recipe - for "Country-Style Hearth Loaf With Cornmeal, Cilanrto and Coarse Pepper" (found on pages 72-74) - delivers on that promise.
To begin, you need to make a poolish. A poolish, sometimes called a "pre-ferment" is simply a starter. A launching pad, if you will, for the yeast and flavor development. A poolish is in the same family as a sourdough starter, but isn't necessarily something that is kept alive for years and years. It's a short-term starter.
For that, all you need is flour, water and yeast. (In this case, that's 1/2 cup water, 1/2 tsp dry yeast, and 3/4 cup flour – I used 1/4 cup white whole wheat (King Arthur) and 1/2 cup all-purpose.)
You mix them together and let them sit and ferment. The yeast wakes up and starts consuming the flour and giving off carbon dioxide, creating that lovely bubbly effect. Ideally, you want this to go slowly. We're not rushing things here. The book recommends a "moderately warm (74-80 degrees F) draft-free place" and tells us this fermentation process can take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours.
I let mine sit all day. And the, by the time I actually HAD time to do anything with it, dinner was over and I really wasn't in the mood to make the dough. So into the fridge it went, and it sat there until two days later, because the next day was taken over by beer brewing and risotto-making.
And here's how it looked:
Now it's time to make the final dough. Here's what you need:
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 tsp dry yeast
1 1/4 cups stone-ground cornmeal (use what you have available in your part of the world)
1 T sea salt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro (actually, I'd recommend doubling that if you want to taste it in the final product. I didn't taste it at all at this amount.)
2 T coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste
3 1/4 – 4 1/2 cups 20% bran wheat flour (or you can use about 25% whole wheat blended with 75% all-purpose, which is what I did.)
Okay. First, combine the poolish, water and yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer. Then stir in the cornmeal…then the cilantro, pepper, salt, and enough of the flour to "make a thick mass that is difficult to stir." (Of course, if you're using a stand mixer, there is no difficulty in stirring, but this book is written as if you're doing this by hand. Which is fun, too.)
At this point, add the flour a little at a time (1/4 cup or so) and knead (by hand or by mixer) until the dough is soft and smooth.
Shape the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set in a moderately warm, draft free place (like the poolish) until the dough has doubled in volume.
Once it has doubled in volume (if you poke your finger in the dough about a half inch, the indentation stays; the dough doesn't spring back any more), deflate it, then form it back into a ball, put it back in the bowl and let it rest about 30 minutes.
After the 30 minutes are up, deflate the dough again and divide it in two. Knead each of them a bit and form them into round loaves.
Line two bowls with well-floured towels (and I can't stress the "well-floured" part enough – if you don't saturate the towels with flour, the dough will end up sticking, and…well…you'll see.) Place the loaves smooth-side down in the bowl and dust the top sides with flour. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel (I just folded the corners of the towel up and over and sprayed it with some water) and let it rise until it increases about 1 1/2 times in volume.
Now. While the loaves are rising, start preheating your oven. The book recommends baking these on a pizza stone or on tiles on the bottom of your oven. I didn't – my stone isn't big enough for two loaves and I didn't want either loaf to feel left out, so I just baked them on a cookie sheet. But still, you want to be sure your oven is HOT. 450 degrees hot. So preheat it longer than the usual 20 minutes or so. Place a rack in the center of the oven. Too low and the bottom crusts might burn.
Also, get a spray bottle with water ready. Spraying the inside of the oven helps create a nice, crispy crust.
Okay, here's the tricky part. But first – see how nicely the dough rose? Lovely and puffy and round.
"Gently invert the loaves from the baskets or bowls onto a floured board or peel so they are right side up." That's what the book says. I didn't use a peel, I gently inverted them right onto the baking sheet. And as I was doing so…the dough stuck to the towel and pulled…and flop went the lovely puffy loaf.
So, like I said before, SATURATE the towel with flour, so that such an aesthetic tragedy will not befall YOU.
I did better with the other loaf, as you can see below.
Then, before you put them in the oven, you want to score the loaves (slice shallowly) with a VERY sharp knife or razor blade. This allows steam to escape and preserves the shape of the loaves. If your knife isn't VERY sharp, it will pull on the dough and possibly deflate the lovely puffy loaves.
Into the oven they go, and with your water bottle, spray all over the inside of the oven (avoiding the light bulb – it could burst) to create steam. Shut the oven door, wait 3 minutes, and spray again. After that point, bake the loaves for 20 minutes or so and then reduce the heat to 400. Bake "until loaves are a rich caramel color and the crust is firm, another 15 to 20 minutes."
Cool them completely on a wire rack.
One thing I want to mention. The book, Bread Alone, is far more specific with regard to temperatures then I have been in this post. In most bakeries, temperature is monitored closely – the temp of the room, the water, the flour…and calculations are made to keep the dough at optimum temperature for a slow rise and, as a result, a better flavor. I didn't take the temperature of anything. But I made sure not to use warm water or to let the poolish or dough sit in too warm an area. The warmer the temperature, the faster the bread will rise, and though, in the case of bread, the sooner I can have a slice the better, allowing more time for all the fermenting and rising will result in a far superior loaf. So go slow. It's definitely worth the wait.
I used the full 2 tablespoons called for, and I wouldn't change that a bit. I loved the peppery flavor, and the crunch from the cornmeal. I didn't taste the cilantro at all, like I mentioned earlier, so I think when I make this again I'll double the amount. Or not. The bread was pretty damn good as it was.
Give this loaf (or these loaves) a try. You won't be sorry.