Sometimes it still confounds me that for many years I was hesitant to attempt making any yeast-based breads that extended beyond a basic pizza crust. I contribute this lack of confidence to a spotty history of using my purchased yeast in a timely manner (thus rendering it dead and unusable). To boot, there is also my rather sad history of trying to make whole wheat bread 15 years ago in what can only be called The World’s Coldest Apartment, where the lack of heat (we’re talking steam from my breath being visible inside the house here, folks) inhibited my bread dough from rising. To add insult to my bread-baking confidence’s injury, I still ate the squat, leaden loaves that I ended up baking. If I was too poor to pay for heat, you’d better believe I was also too poor to throw out food, unpalatable as it may have been.
Now, having worked with yeast-based breads for many years, I find the process of making bread to be a soothing respite from my generally busy day-to-day schedule. Proofing bread involves a lot of waiting, so when making bread I am not only involved in the process of physically making the bread, but also waiting around while the bread slowly proofs, coming to leisurely life before my eyes. Some people might find this maddening, but I rather enjoy it. Truth be told, however, I usually use my bread proofing time to conquer all manner of mundane tasks like cleaning the kitchen or, you know, working. Because I am no fun at all.
This is one of my favorite breads. I generally buy a loaf of it from Pearl Bakery, a wonderful little bakery downtown that turns out a fantastic selection of breads and pastries. The Pearl Bakery’s pane coi santi, a traditional Tuscan bread that is dotted with dried fruit, toasted nuts, and a varying selection of seasonings, is a slightly different animal than the version I make. Theirs is made with a levain, a natural sourdough starter with a mild and pleasantly sour tang that gives the bread a good, hearty body. My version has a softer crumb, with a lightly chewy crust and a body that is decidedly less dense. Both versions are tasty, but, not having the gumption to start my own levain (perhaps this will be my next step in bread baking), I instead start my bread with a sponge of rye and wheat flours left to sit overnight and develop a slightly tangy and complex flavor. I also use dried sour cherries in my version in lieu of the Pearl’s golden raisins, and I think the swap is a good one. The sour/sweet note of cherries adds a nice touch to the heat of the black pepper that lingers in the bread, nicely bridging the two flavors together.
Even if you are not a bread baker by nature, I think you should take a stab at this bread. In reality, the preparation is not at all difficult, and, if nothing else, you’ll be giving yourself a bit of time to sit around and wait on your bread, perhaps while reading a book, catching up on email, or, if you’re as insufferably over-focused as some people around here, cleaning or working. Really, though? I think you should go with reading.
Last Year: Seared Tuna Steaks with Salsa Verde
Pane Coi Santi Recipe
Part of the base of this recipe hails from the basic country bread recipe in The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book, but the tweaks and additions added to it that transform it into pane coi santi are mine.
1 cup warm water
1 cup whole wheat flour
½ cup medium rye flour
½ teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
3 ½ to 3 ¾ cups bread flour
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/3 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 cup coarsely chopped, lightly toasted walnuts
1 cup dried sour cherries
To make the sponge:
Combine all of the ingredients in a medium bowl, then stir until completely incorporated. The mixture will be sticky and somewhat shaggy. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 6 to 24 hours, until the sponge has risen and fallen. I find it best to mix the sponge in the evening, then allow it to sit overnight.
To make the bread:
In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine 3 ½ cups of bread flour, honey, and yeast. With the mixer on low speed, or, if mixing by hand, while stirring with a sturdy wooden spoon, add the water and mix until the dough comes together, 1 to 2 minutes. When the dough comes together, stop mixing, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 20 minutes
After 20 minutes, remove the plastic wrap and add the sponge, sea salt and black pepper. Knead the dough on medium-low speed if using a stand mixer, or knead the dough by hand while it is still in the bowl. If you are kneading the dough by hand, you will need to add in a bit more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough ceases to become a sticky mess. Mind you, the dough will be very sticky no matter what you do, so a reasonable amount of stickiness is to be expected. The same advice applies to mixing the dough in a stand mixer: if the dough is unrelentingly sticky, add in more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes. Add the walnuts and dried cherries during the last minute of kneading.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, tight ball. Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface. Using your fingers, gently deflate the dough. Gently stretching and pulling, shape the dough into a 12-inch by 16-inch rectangle, with the long side facing you. Using a sharp knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into two 12-inch by 8-inch rectangles. Roll each rectangle into a tight log by folding the top two corners towards the middle of the rectangle, then tightly rolling the dough, tucking as you roll, into a loaf. Pinch the end seam closed.
Line a large overturned or rimless baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Place the two loaves on the parchment paper, spray or brush lightly with oil, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Half and hour before the dough is done rising, adjust an oven rack to the lower middle position and preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a heavy baking sheet or baking stone on the lower middle oven rack and allow to heat up for 20 to 30 minutes.
When the dough is done rising, remove the plastic wrap and, using a very sharp knife, slash the tops of each loaf with three diagonal cuts. Lightly spray the tops of the loaves with water. Carefully slide the loaves, still on the parchment paper, onto the heated baking sheet or baking stone in the oven. Immediately reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Bake the loaves, rotating halfway through baking, until they are dark golden brown and an instant read thermometer inserted into the center of a loaf registers 210 degrees, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Remove loaves to a wire rack to cool for at least 1 hour.
Makes two large loaves.