Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Bread Board: Cider Polenta Levain

This is one of those "mutt" breads, a thrown-together, inspiration-of-the-moment dough. No-Knead breads are all the rage, but how many have ventured into the land of "No-Measure"? Well, the recipe below will show that I did eventually measure, so that I could provide a recipe, measurements being traditional in recipes. The original version was a couple ladles starter, slosh slosh of water, couple handfuls cracked wheat, that looks like enough salt let's taste no a little more, etc.

We get this beautiful organic polenta from
Whole Grain Milling Company. That's what inspired this bread. I've long made a yeasted loaf with cornmeal, milk, and honey. I'm moving toward all organic, natural leaven breads, very rustic and pure, so the coarse polenta spoke to me. When I poured some of our home-pressed cider over it, I knew I would have something good.

The quality of ingredients is often, oddly, overlooked in discussions of bread making, where technique is a topic of endless debate. Yet even in a complicated bread, like brioche, for example, the list of ingredients is very short and basic, compared to even a simple cooked dish, like soup. So to me it makes sense to pay attention to each and every ingredient. Use filtered water, because I doubt that yeast likes chlorine very much. And if you're lucky enough to live in America's grain belt, seek out the best local flours from small organic producers.

I have absolute reverence for the work and products and mission of Whole Grain Milling in Welcome, Minnesota. Their whole wheat bread flour is the magic ingredient that goes into nearly all of our breads. Their organic whole rye gives a round, sweet northern flavor to our rye doughs. That's the stuff to use if you can get it. Whole Grain Milling doesn't make an all-purpose white flour (probably something about that "whole grain" in their name...), so we round out a lot of doughs with
Gold 'N White from Natural Way Mills.

So anyway, here's my cider polenta mutt. You can clearly see the grains of polenta in the finished dough (and you can see that I have discovered the "Super Macro" function on my camera). The crust is crackly crisp, unlike any other bread I have made. It has slightly hard little nubbins of polenta on the outside of the crust, which I find very appealing. In the process of photographing the finished bread, I ate nearly half a loaf thickly smeared with Hope Creamery butter.

Cider Polenta Levain
Makes four one-pound batards

1 cup coarse polenta
1 cup sweet (not hard) apple cider
1 1/2 cups (375 grams) well-refreshed liquid levain (sourdough starter)
1 1/2 cups water
1 Tbsp salt
2 cups whole wheat bread flour
1/2 cup cracked wheat
3+ cups organic unbleached white flour (I use
Gold 'N White from Natural Way Mills)

Mix the polenta and cider and let sit for at least two hours. Combine starter and water in a large (I use eight-quart) mixing bowl, and stir in the soaked polenta, the salt, whole wheat bread flour, and cracked wheat. Add two cups of the unbleached white flour. The dough should be quite thick at this point, but still pretty wet. Add additional flour a bit at a time until you can't stir it any more, then dump your dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead for just a couple of minutes, adding additional white flour as needed. This will make a dense, relatively wet dough. Once you have what looks like a dough, put it back in the mixing bowl, sprinkle with a little flour, and leave it alone for at least 15 minutes. DO NOT overknead the dough; you will get a dull, dry final product if you work too much flour into the dough at this point.

After the dough has rested, knead it again for about three minutes, again adding small amounts of flour to your board to keep the dough from sticking. When it's nice and springy put it back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it proof. Note: When I say "nice and springy," I mean relatively nice and springy--with all the whole grains in this bread, and the coarse polenta and cracked wheat, this is not going to feel like a yeasted baguette dough.

Proofing: In a cool house such as one tends to have in Minnesota in the winter, I just leave the dough on the kitchen counter overnight, shape, proof and bake it in the morning. In warmer conditions, I'll let the dough proof at room temperature for an hour or so, refrigerate for two or three hours, take it out knead it down, and then let it sit out at room temp overnight. Overall, a dough like this wants to proof for at least 12 hours, though proofing longer, especially in cool conditions, certainly won't hurt it.

I bake this bread in batards of a little over a pound of dough. This batch makes four such loaves. You can make larger loaves if you like. Shape the loaves to suit your fancy and place them on a cornmeal-dusted wooden peel. Let the loaves proof in a warmish place (if possible) for at least an hour and a half, two hours, better. They should look noticeably risen, though not necessarily doubled.

Forty minutes before baking, preheat your oven with baking stone in place to 450. When your loaves are ready to bake, slash them with a razor blade or very sharp knife. Slide the loaves from the peel onto your stone. Add steam in whatever manner is convenient: we have small cast iron skillets permanently sitting on the floor of our ovens, and I toss four ice cubes into the skillet and close the door. Some prefer to mist with a spray bottle, or have a baking dish with water in it on another oven rack, heating as the oven preheats.

Bake at 450 for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 425 and bake for another 12 minutes. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing. But do catch it while it's still a bit warm, and have some great unsalted butter on hand. There's your breakfast, or lunch, or a snack beyond compare.

Bon pain pour tous!

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


Martha said...

Great light in these photos!

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Martha: Our kitchen has windows on the north and east, and a skylight--gives a nice diffuse light on overcast days. Cheers~ Brett

mdmnm said...


That looks (and sounds) really good. Thanks for another really interesting recipe

Kim Ode said...

Now I know what else I'm baking on Christmas Eve day! Your breads look amazing. Happiest of holidats to you both.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Kim, mdmnm: Thanks for checking in. If you do try the recipe, I'd love to hear how it turns out. Happy baking, and all best in 2010~ Brett

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