Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sourdough walnut bread

Though I'm not a big fan of walnuts per se, I adore walnut bread - somehow the bread part manages to bring out the best of the walnuts and the walnuts bring out the best of the bread!

I've been baking a loaf or two of bread every week for awhile now, and though I try to vary it up from week to week with different types of bread, I've found that I just keep coming back to the walnut bread. I know it will be delicious, and I know I'll never get tired of it. The only downside to this bread is that it's so good that I hesitate to pile on lots of sandwich toppings because I'm afraid they'll drown out the flavor. In fact, this bread is fine to eat just by itself - add a bit of olive oil and salt and it's absolute heaven!

350 g. whole wheat flour
150 g. bread flour
A spoonful of salt
A spoonful of olive oil
Half a cup of walnuts
Sourdough starter
Warm water (as much as is necessary)

Naturally, to make sourdough bread, you'll need to have some sourdough starter. If you don't have the time to make starter, I suppose you could just use yeast, but the starter really adds a wonderful flavor here, so I strongly advise you to make your own. Once you make a starter, you can keep it in the refrigerator for years, just feeding it with flour and water every so often, and it will only get better over time!

The method I've been employing to make my sourdough bread recently is to make the dough one evening, let it rise in the refrigerator overnight, and then give it a second rise and bake it the next day. While this does require a bit of planning ahead, it definitely improves the flavor of the bread, and I kind of like being able to spread out the bread-making over 2 days - that way I don't have to worry about not giving the dough enough time to rise.

So, if you want to follow that method, the day before you plan to bake your bread, make the dough. When I have time, I try to feed my sourdough starter about 5 hours before making the dough, so that I can build it up from roughly half a cup to almost a cup and a half - again, this is all with the aim of strengthening the flavor of the bread, and if you have time, I definitely recommend it.

Measure out your starter and add equal parts water and flour (I generally use whole wheat flour, but you can use any sort of wheat or rye flour), place in a covered container, and let sit several hours in a warmish place.

When you're ready to make your dough, mix together the two flours in a large bowl. Chop the walnuts into medium-small pieces and set aside. Prepare your kneading space by dusting with flour, and have a large cup of warm water ready. Also, just in case you forgot, make sure to remove any rings and watches, tie your hair up if it's long, and wear an apron (I know these are very basic bread-making tips, but I often forget at least one of these things until I'm already halfway through the dough-making and my hands are covered with flour, so I thought I'd include them here). The apron is not always necessary, but it's a good idea, especially if you're wearing dark clothing.

Measure out a quarter cup of the freshly fed starter, mix with a quarter cup of flour and a quarter cup of water, and return it to the refrigerator. The rest of the starter will go into the dough. Form the flour into a sort of well, and sprinkle the salt around the outside of the well. Pour the olive oil into the middle of the well, and then add in the starter. Incorporate the flour into the starter, starting from the inside and working your way out. Add water as needed, pouring in a bit and then mixing until the dough starts to become dry, and then adding more. Continue this way until all the flour has been incorporated into the starter and water, and you have a slightly wet, sticky dough.

Turn the dough out onto your floured board, and do something called "fraisage". I first read about this on the baking site The Fresh Loaf, and though it's generally recommended as a way to get flakier pastry crusts, it's featured in this video of Danielle Forestier showing Julia Child how to make french bread, and I've found that if nothing else, it cuts down on the kneading time. Probably improves the flavor too, but I haven't done any scientific experiments to determine that yet...

In any case, fraisage is just a technique in which you turn the dough out and then sort of stretch it all out. Place the palm of your hand in the center of the dough and then push it out towards the left end of the board. Repeat, only this time push out the dough at an angle slightly closer to the center, and continue pushing out the dough all around. After this, let the dough sit for a couple of minutes (you can use the time to wash any dishes that need it).

Once the dough has sat a bit, turn it out again, and knead for 5-10 minutes, until it is resistant when you push down on it. Fold in the walnuts by taking a few spoonfuls, placing them in the middle of the dough, folding the bottom of the dough over the top, giving the dough a quarter turn, and then pushing it down again. Repeat with another few spoonfuls of walnuts, and continue this way until you have used up all the walnuts. Then fold the right and left sides of the dough over into thirds, give the dough a quarter turn, and repeat.

Shape the dough into a ball and place in a floured bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator at least 2 hours before you want to bake it, more if possible. Because the dough will be cold, the second rise takes longer than it would if you had let the dough rise at room temperature - for that I generally give the dough a second rise of one hour, but here I aim for more like 3 hours.

Punch the dough down, and divide it into whatever shapes you want your final loaves to be. I went for two oval-shaped loaves this time.

Cover the dough with a well-floured cloth, and let rise for 2-3 hours. 45 minutes to an hour before baking, preheat your oven to 450º F / 235º C. If using a baking stone, make sure the baking stone is in the oven before you preheat it!

Just before baking, score the loaves, by making several deep cuts into the tops with a sharp knife or razor blade. Place in oven, and after about 5 minutes turn the heat down to 400º F / 205º C. Let bake another 20-30 minutes, remove from oven, and let cool.

Serve as a tartine, a sandwich, a complement to a meal, or simply on its own!

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