Fig & Fennel Christmas Bread

Success! To be perfectly honest with the reader, baking bread is hard. It takes a long time to complete, its meticulous, its finicky, but it’s completely worth it when you do it right. There is something so very basic and satisfying about making bread, its a building block towards true mastery of cooking as well as a step backward towards the most fundamental meal.

This bread, another Italian delicacy swiped directly from the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, comes from the North as well. However, it is served around Christmastime and when fruit and fennel is added, it becomes a festive holiday bread for all! The bread has a dense but soft inside with a golden, chewy crust. The fennel and figs make the bread sweeter but the tiniest amount of cloves (my last second addition) is what really gives the bread its own unique flavor.

This time, I didn’t bother scouring the Internet for a traditional Pan di Sorc  (sorc means cornmeal) recipe that would probably be unreliable and far removed from the real thing. So, I plucked the flavors out of the reading (polenta, fennel, rye flour, figs) and combined them with a recipe I could trust to make the perfectly risen, airy loaf. I’m not sure that this the way it would be made in Italia, but it tastes pretty good to me.

Introducing:

The Tassajara Bread Book...with some notes

The Tassajara was written by a Tibetan monk in 1970. I took some notes.The Tassajara Bread Book...with some notes

Make sure the water is luke warm! I used honey for the sweetener but molasses (would change the color and flavor) or sugar works as well! For initial and future risings, make sure the dough is securely snuggled in a warm spot, covered by a damp cloth.

Honey, Milk, Yeast

Add the dried fruit to when adding the oil and salt. I chose currants to go along with it because I like how small and tart they are, but you could use any dried berry such as raisons or cherries. Possible combinations to ponder: date and raison or cherry and apricot.

IMG_6419

Dried Turkish Figs by Martina Rehmus

Second rising stage, with the fruit and spiced folded in.

Bread Dough

Third Rising: post punching.

Risen!

I made my loaves a mix between rolls and loaves, about two servings each. That is the traditional way. After cutting, gently  tuck the sides in around the bottom to form a circle…or oval.

Making the Rolls

The trick with top slits is to not cut too deep, the cuts will expand when they rise. Aim for about a centimeter deep. After cutting and brushing with eggwash, sprinkle with cornmeal for a crusted topping. (You’re almost done!)

X's and Milk Wash

IMG_6456

Bake until the loaves sound hollow when knocked, my mom taught me that nifty trick. Or else, until golden and brown.  

Fig and Fennel Christmas Bread by Martina Rehmus

Fig and Fennel Christmas Bread by Martina Rehmus

Enjoy!

Fig and Fennel Christmas Bread by Martina Rehmus

Recipe taken from the Tassajara Bread Book, with my own added flavoring and flour substitutions.

Part One:

3 cups lukewarm water (85º-105º)

2 tbsp dry yeast

1/4 c honey

1 c dry milk

4 c whole wheat flour

Part Two:

4 tsp salt

1/3 c canola oil

1 c chopped dried figs

1 c currants

2 tsp fennel seeds

1/4 tsp ground cloves

3 c rye flour

1 c rye flour for kneading

1/2 c polenta

1 egg

Stir and dissolve yeast into the water. Then stir in sweetener until dissolved, then add milk. Gently stir in four cups flour to form a thick batter, don’t over mix. Beat 100 strokes with a spoon. Cover and let rise 1 hour (it will not rise much, but will bubble

Gently fold in salt and oil (fold is NOT stir). Start from the bottom and pull dough slowly to the surface. Add the fruit and spices. Fold in the rye flour and use force to incorporate the flour, until it is removed from the side and bottom of the bowl. As seen above, the dough will not be smooth or 100% mixed. Move dough to board and knead for at least 8 minutes, adding flour until the dough does not need flour and it feels elastic-y and pliable.  Put back in oiled bowl. Cover, rewet cloth, and let rise between 1.5/2 hrs or until doubled in size.

Punch down 15-20 times, do not stir or mix, simply punch. Cover, rewet cloth, let rise for 1 hr or until doubled again.

Preheat oven to 350º.

Roll out dough on board into a log, with about a 5 inch diameter. Cut log into 4 inch pieces, as seen above. Tuck sides to form ball. Slit with sharp knife and let rise 20 minutes (the last rise!) and brush generously with egg wash (make by whisking egg with 3 tbsp water or milk) making sure to coat the entire roll, except for the bottom. Sprinkle with polenta and bake for 25 minutes.

Rolls can be eaten right away. These straddle the savory and sweet line, my family will be eating them with beef bourguignon for Christmas dinner but they are also nice with butter.

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