Fortunately, I believe that today a revival of interest in making bread is in full swing. People are learning that it is possible to make as little as one loaf at a time with a minimum of effort--or perhaps two loaves, with one for the freezer. They are also learning the extraordinary sense of satisfaction that comes from kneading their own dough, the sensual pleasure in smelling a yeasty loaf baking in the oven, the sense of accomplishment in offering real bread at a meal--to say nothing of the knowledge that each loaf is full of goodness instead of being just a starchy filler. -James Beard (Beard on Bread, 1973)
Last weekend I was in Lake Tahoe, where I spent two freezing wet days simultaneously railing at the elements and marveling at the beauty of snowy pines and hazy mountains. It was my third time in Tahoe and my first during the skiing season and, truth be told, I'm not entirely sure that I'm made of hearty enough stuff to traipse through an outdoor mall with leaky ceilings in the dead of winter. More importantly, I'm the kind of person who can't help but see the irony in the resort's name--Heavenly--which struck me as the worst kind of misnomer given the conditions. Needless to say, I was more than a little miserable. But when you consider that we were driving around in the snow in a car with no heating, that our room in the cabin also had no heating (a running weekend theme) and that the people we were staying with had christened one of the rooms in the cabin "the drunk tank" before we arrived, can you really blame me?
I had always envisioned that a cabin in the snowy mountains would be incredibly romantic and cozy. In my ideal vision of this wintry paradise, there would be a roaring fireplace, a kitchen from which good smells would constantly be emanating and an endless supply of hot chocolate (spiked or unspiked) to be passed around. I will admit that sometimes when I have these thoughts, I wonder if I live in the real world or a fantasy world, but I suppose I will, for better or for worse, always be an idealist.
In my ideal world, I would have baked bread--walnut bread--in this cabin. It's the kind of kitchen project that I want to embark on on a cold and rainy weekend. Bread baking, after all, has a way of warming a home and filling it with a deliciously nourishing and yeasty smell. Walnut bread is particularly good for these purposes; like a tantalizing siren song, its nutty aroma, which stems from a combination of toasted walnuts and walnut oil, beckons you to the kitchen. It makes you want to cozy up next to the oven and wait for a glimpse of the dark and crunchy loaf that will emerge.
But there was to be no bread baking in Tahoe. Such pleasures had to be postponed until we returned home, where not only all of my supplies were waiting (I had taken lots of food with us, but you can't take a whole kitchen with you on a weekend trip), but also my nosy little beagle, whose snout can always be found investigating any and all activity in the kitchen.
Although I'm often impatient by nature, the nice thing about baking bread is that it helps to teach you patience; waiting is inherently embedded into the process. Depending on your preferred method, you might go the no-knead route and let your bread rise overnight, or you might have to wait several days for your starter to activate before you can even dream of starting to make a loaf. Personally, I tend to prefer yeasty breads that require a first and second rise, as well as kneading (call this my need to feel like an integral part of the process, rather than a bystander), although it is true that I have attempted to make and maintain a starter and would be ecstatic if one of these days I managed not to kill it off (any tips, faithful readers? If not, I've got Tartine Book No. 3, with its promise of whole-grain and porridge loaves, to help me).
Once I conquered my initial fear of baking bread, it quickly turned into one of my favorite kitchen activities. Now, if I have a quiet day at home, it seems only right to make a loaf and to try a new method or recipe. Although I have amassed more than my fair share of bread making books--one on Greek breads, To psomi, The Italian Baker, Beard on Bread, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Tartine, Home Baking--I tend to prefer two above the others: Beard on Bread, a classic by an American icon (he happens to be a good and compelling writer, too) and Carol Field's The Italian Baker, which Amanda Hesser endorses in The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Both are interesting to read and have a lot to offer the novice and expert bread baker.
When I first found a copy of Beard on Bread in an antique store in Sonoma back in the fall, I was immediately attracted to the recipe for Walnut Bread from Southern Burgundy by the British food writer, Jane Grigson. However, once I studied the recipe a little more closely, I realized that I didn't want onions in my walnut bread; while it would have been easy to omit them, I also happened to be out of milk that day, so I decided to look in The Italian Baker for another walnut bread recipe. The one I found seemed less fussy--no sugar, no milk, no onions--but it lacked one essential ingredient that I wanted to use: walnut oil, which I thought would enhance the bread's walnut flavor. That was easy enough to rectify; I just substituted walnut oil for olive (you can also use olive oil if you don't have walnut; with toasted walnuts mixed into the dough, the bread will still have a walnut flavor), combining what I liked about Beard's recipe with Field's. Since then, I've made this recipe a number of times and have even played with flour; through trial and error, I've found that a combination of all-purpose and whole wheat flour yields a loaf that has a good texture and is pleasantly chewy-crumbed.
The nutty flavor of this bread makes it the perfect foil for either savory (it's a nice sandwich loaf) or sweet toppings. When I recently made a Rose Petal and Lemon Milk Jam for the jam blog, I spread it on a walnut loaf, topped it with a dot of sour cherry preserves, sprinkled it with rose petals and had a sweet breakfast of what I called Persian Milk Jam toasts. Good stuff to start the morning with!
Walnut Bread (Pane di Noci)
heavily adapted from Carol Field's The Italian Baker and inspired by Jane Grigon's Walnut Bread in Beard on Bread
makes 1 large loaf
1 (100 grams)-2 (200 grams) cups walnut pieces
360 grams (3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
100 grams (3/4 cup) whole wheat flour
2 1/2 teaspoons rapid rising yeast OR 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup honey
1 1/3 cups warm water, plus a few extra tablespoons (you may need this because of the whole wheat flour)
2 tablespoons walnut oil OR olive oil, plus more for oiling the bowl and baking sheet
-Preheat the oven to 375 F. Then, place the walnuts on a baking sheet covered with parchment or a silpat and toast them in the oven for 8-10 minutes.
-Remove from the oven and, once they have cooled slightly, roughly chop them with a sharp knife. Set aside.
-In a medium-sized bowl, combine the toasted walnuts, all-purpose and whole wheat flour, rapid rising yeast and salt. (NB If you are using active dry yeast, do not add it to the dry mixture. You will instead add it in the next step.)
-In a large bowl combine the water, honey and walnut oil and stir together. (NB If you are using active dry yeast, stir it into the water with the honey and let stand for about 10 minutes, or until foamy. Only then should you stir in the oil.)
-Using a wooden spoon, gradually stir the dry ingredients (about 1 cup at a time) into the liquid mixture. If the dough looks dry, add an extra tablespoon of water at a time. Keep mixing until the dough comes together, although it should still be a little shaggy.
-Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 8-10 minutes. If the dough is sticky, keep adding all-purpose flour, although the amount used should not exceed 1/3 cup or it might become too dry.
-You will know the bread is ready when it is tender, somewhat dense and slightly damp. It should not be terribly elastic.
-For the first rise: place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Put the bowl in a warm place and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
-Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and, without punching it down or kneading it, shape it into a log.
-Place the free-form loaf on an oiled baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
-While the bread is rising, heat the oven to 400 F. (NB If you are using a baking stone, sprinkle the stone with cornmeal and place it in the oven 30 minutes before baking.)
-Put the baking sheet in the oven (or carefully place the bread on the baking stone) and bake at 400 F for 10 minutes.
-Then, reduce the heat to 350 F and bake for 40 more minutes.
-Remove from the oven and place on a rack to let cool completely. If you knock on the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow.