Raisin & Pecan Wheat Bread & Crostini

As I mentioned in a previous post, a novel re-inspired me to get into bread and make a real go of figuring out starters and the ins and outs of yeast doughs. I happened to be reading the book around the same time I moderated a breakfast event catered by The Corner Bakery. Now, I had never heard of this place, had no idea where they were, or whether they were any good. Turns out they’re pretty okay (I still much prefer Paris Baguette), but one of the items they provided in particular sparked my curiosity.

After searching their catering menus and looking online, I still have no idea what this is called – though it might be under their vague naming of “sweet or savory crisps.” I’m gonna call it crostini, though it’s not strictly crostini. It was a dark rye bread with raisins and pecans, sliced thin and toasted with sugar sprinkled on it. I was intrigued when I saw it, but a bit iffy on trying it; it wasn’t until my associate mentioned wanting to try it as well that we decided to split one. ZOMG. It had a wonderfully dark flavor (and I’m not a fan of rye – just ask Mikal), with the pecans and raisins adding just a bit of sweetness. The sugar coating helped push it over to the breakfast-sweet side, but otherwise it tasted like it could almost be healthy. The flavor was decently complex, and something about it reminded me of a passage in the novel I was reading about a breakfast bread being made with raisins soaked in orange juice. *zapbangbam!* I had to try my hand at it.

This is quite the project – spans anywhere from 18-24 hours, and requires the setup of a sourdough starter, which takes about a week to prepare. That’s part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get it up here; the other is that this recipe marks my first recipe that I have really developed kind of on my own, and have futzed with. The second iteration of the dough worked much better than the first, so I’ll talk about that one below.

The recipe this is based on called for cranberries and walnuts. While I had walnuts, I never have cranberries. That might eventually change, but I also really wanted to try my hand at making an approximation of the crostini, so I translated the recipe to accommodate the raisins and pecans. The base dough was pretty standard and versatile, and didn’t give me too much trouble. You do want to squeeze the juice out of the raisins before you add them to the dough – otherwise it will come together too sticky/moist and you’ll have to add a good amount of flour to balance it out.

As I mentioned, this is a work in progress – do not be surprised if I revisit it in a bit.

Raisin & Pecan Wheat Bread

adapted from How to Bake a Perfect Life

1 cup raisins, soaked in warm orange juice
1 cup sourdough starter at room temperature
1/2 cup bread flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup ground pecans
1 cup water
2 tbsp molasses
1 scant tsp yeast

1 tbsp oil
1 1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1/2-1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup soaked raisins

For the Sponge

Mix together all ingredients and knead for a few minutes, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature for 2-4 hours. It should be foamy – very foamy.

For the Dough

Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead together the sponge, oil, pecans and salt; knead on low for a couple of minutes. Let rest for 30 minutes, then knead again for 10 minutes or until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is still sticky after a couple of minutes, add up to 1/4 cup flour a tbsp at a time. After the 10 minutes, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead in raisins. (Be sure to squeeze the juice out of the raisins, otherwise this gets messy pretty quickly.) Let rest again for 30 minutes.

Dust with a little white flour if needed and form the dough into a rectangle. Put this in an oiled 2-quart container and mark where the dough will be when it doubles. Cover and let rise until doubled.

Deflate dough, cover and place in fridge overnight.

In the morning, turn the dough onto a floured surface and roll into a rectangle. Roll into a loaf and tuck in the ends, and place seam-down onto a lined baking sheet. Cover with an oiled piece of plastic wrap and let rise until doubled.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Fill a cast iron pan with pater and place in oven during preheat.

Uncover loaf and let stand for 5 minutes. Place loaf in oven, and turn oven down to 375°F. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until golden and sounds hollow when hit from bottom.

To make the Crostini

Thinly slice the loaf (or any portion thereof) into 1/4″ slices, and place on a baking sheet face up. Bake on 325°F for 15 minutes on one side. Remove from oven and flip over. Use either an egg wash or a bit of oil on the second surface of the slice, then sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the desired crispness is reached.

If you still have not reached a crispy enough level, preheat oven to 200°F (or lowest setting your oven will go) and bake for approximately 1-2 hours. Check periodically to achieve desired crispness.


Sourdough Starter

I had a really hard time when I first attempted to make a sourdough starter. First of all, I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like. “Pleasantly sour”? That’s so entirely subjective! And tasting it?! All yeasty and sour and uncooked and blegh – ugh, no.

That right there is why my first attempt failed – I couldn’t bring myself to follow through.

This time I was determined to make it work. Who cares if the phrase “pleasantly sour” is subjective – that’s fine! It’s not going to taste the same everywhere. Part of the magic of making starters is that you’re incorporating elements of the environment into the dough. This starter uses yeast to get the process going in a more understandable fashion, but normally starters are made to grab the yeast naturally present in the environment. What I had to understand with the making of a starter is that you’re creating and nurturing a non-sentient living substance. You have to be patient, and you have to be willing to get involved and taste the progress as it’s evolving.

My starter has been going for just about a month, and each week I have been taking it out and refreshing it, and tasting it to ensure that it’s not getting too funky. At this point the sour of it is quite noticeable, and to my taste buds has not become unpleasant. I do wonder whether I will recognize an unpleasant sourness, but I have faith in myself that I will be able to address that issue should it arise.

As my starter develops, I’ll periodically revisit this page to add notes and give any tips and hints that I can to help understand the process.

Sourdough Starter

from How to Bake a Perfect Life

2 cups potato water, lukewarm
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
2 tsp dry yeast

Stir all ingredients together. Set aside in bowl covered with cheesecloth. Stir once every 24 hours; taste each day, and continue process until it has a pleasantly sour taste – 4-7 days. Once it reaches that point, place into a jar large enough for it and place in fridge, again covered with cheesecloth.

To refresh: 
Once a week, remove half of the starter (this can be used in baked goods or simply discarded) and mix in 1 cup water & 1 cup flour until smooth. Let sit covered on counter overnight. You should see bubbly activity during this time. Place back in fridge in a clean jar in the morning.

**Remember to taste the starter each week – preferably before you add the flour and water.

As time progresses, you’ll notice a clear or dark liquid at the top of the jar when you go to refresh it. This is nothing to fear: it’s the alcohol by-product of the starter existing as it should – just mix it right back into the starter before refreshing.

Yeasty Breads – an update

I just looked at the clock to find that it was 11:30am. I woke up around 8:30am, and I have already put a loaf of Raisin & Pecan Wheat Bread in the oven, put together some tzatziki sauce, started a batch of naan dough, and started the process for a cinnamon bun yeast dough. Usually it’s around 4pm when I hit my third baking item, if I even get that far. Granted, the first loaf has been prepping for 18hrs already, so really I just had to let it rise again and put it in the oven, but still.

It seems I am in a yeasty bread mood.

If I were in the mood to blame something, I would blame How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal. This was my third rereading of the book. The story itself is ok – people with issues and stories trying to find a way to make their lives work. It’s not the story that keeps me coming back: it’s the description of the scenes where the main character is working in her own bakery. (Now that I say it that way, it seems a lot like baker-smut.) That, and the fact that intermittently at the end of chapters there are recipes.

Bread has always held a place in my life. I could never, ever not eat bread. But until recently I have focused more on quick breads and pastries. In some respects they’re easier – they aren’t as temperamental, and they are a bit more forgiving time-wise. Of course, maybe I just think that because I haven’t played around with yeast as much, and haven’t taken the time to understand the wants and needs of that organism.

The second time I read the book, I attempted to make a sourdough starter, the first recipe in the book. Unfortunately, between my own fear of the substance – you have to taste it periodically to ensure that you’re working toward a good flavor, and that just sounded gross – and my own lack of discipline as far as time management and dedication to refreshing the starter weekly, it didn’t really work out. Mikal can attest to the large jar of progressively questionable-looking goo that sat in the fridge for the better part of a year. I was quite literally afraid of what it had become. It went into the trash not too long before I restarted the book.

So I read the book a third time, and again had the urge to attempt sourdough starter and familiarize myself more with yeast breads. This time, though, I was smart about it. In speaking with a coworker that also likes to bake, she helped me come to the conclusion that I really should have a notebook in which to record my recipes and variations, as well as the issues and results and any other notes I may have.

I went and bought myself a Moleskine notebook specifically for recipes. It was more for cooking than baking, so I had to change many of the headings and things. It’s all good though – I have already started with my Raisin & Pecan Wheat Bread, a variation of one of the recipes in the O’Neal book, as well as my observations about the sourdough starter.

It’s quite exciting. I’m on my second refreshing of the starter, and it has a wonderfully sour flavor now. This incarnation of the Raisin & Pecan bread has some of the starter in it, and you can taste the sour as an interesting aftertaste.

That is the news with me, and part of the explanation as to why I missed last week’s post – I’m starting to really develop my own recipes and experiment to find what I’m trying to do. Technically, I’ve been at my kitchen adventures for a couple of years now, but this feels like a different facet of it. We’ll see how it goes.

Banana Nut Bread Scones

I believe I mentioned a while ago having had banana bread french toast, and went on about how amazing it was. (Really, seriously amazing, if I haven’t managed to talk about it before – it is my firm belief that you should stop what you are doing and make banana bread so that you can have banana bread french toast. Now. Really. It’s that good.) At the time I had thought about trying to put it into scone form, but I am limited in my experience of putting fresh fruit into scones and the idea of just experimenting out of the blue still makes me a little antsy…. so I put it on the back burner.

Fast forward a few months to be browsing pinterest the other day: lo and behold, I come across a recipe for banana bread scones. They did the weird thing of adding chocolate chips to it, which I find to be an odd thought, though once I think of monkey tails (frozen chocolate-covered bananas) it doesn’t seem that odd but it’s really very odd all the same.  But that’s fine – there are undoubtedly people who think that adding nuts to banana bread is just bonkers.

At any rate, these turned out just magnificently, down to the browned butter glaze. I was initially thinking of attempting a glaze out of waffle syrup, but decided against it at the last minute. I suddenly found myself following the recipe for the glaze in this recipe, and it turned out just magnificently. It has a wonderful caramel flavor, and it kind of creeps up on you. Seriously have to keep that on-hand. Perhaps for apple scones (!)

Banana Nut Bread Scones

from How Sweet It Is

3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cups cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2/3 cup buttermilk
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)

1/4 cup brown butter
1/2-3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tbsp milk or half & half

Preheat oven to 425°F.

In a large bowl, whisk or sift together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, soda, salt and cinnamon until combined. Add butter and using your fingers, a fork or a pastry blender mix it together and combine until it forms coarse crumbs.

Make a well in the center and add buttermilk, vanilla extract and bananas. Mix with a large spoon until dough forms and comes together – it will be sticky. Add in nuts and chocolate chips. Divide dough in half and pat it into 6-inch circles on a floured surface. Cut into 6-8 wedges (or use cookie cutters), then place on a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes. Top with glaze and serve.

For the glaze

To brown butter: heat 4 tbsp butter in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat once brown flecks start appearing, and continue stirring in the pan for another minute or so.

In a medium bowl combine brown butter, vanilla extract and powdered sugar. (I added the extract first, whisked it together, then whisked the powdered sugar in 1/8th cup at a time until I had added 1/2 cup total. That made a funny thick pasty-liquid that looked kind of gross. Luckily, it came together just fine as I added the half & half.) Whisk until the mixture comes together then add in 1 tbsp milk, continuing to mix. If it still doesn’t appear glaze-like, add in milk 1/2 tbsp at a time and mix again until you achieve the desired consistency.