Saturday, January 4, 2014

The F-Word (A Bread Recipe)

 Some of us -- and I'm not mentioning any names here -- learned to hate the F-word at a terrifyingly young age.

Recently I've come to terms with the F-word being just a word.  If other people have a problem with it, if it makes them uncomfortable, if they choose to be rude about hearing it or rude about saying it, if the thing that it represents is something they have hang-ups about... these are not my problem.

If you're reading this, chances are you've been living in fear of the F-word, too.  You use it as an insult, or you dread hearing it when you're out in public.  It takes away all social value from the target, it gives the speaker a sense of power, and yet to onlookers the person who says the F-word just looks like an idiot.

You know the word I mean, right?  FAT.

Cripes, it's even an offensive shape on the page.

So you can understand why when every duck recipe I saw over New Year's used the F-word in a nice way, when they talked about the joys of rendering it and using it to fry potatoes (truly French fried potatoes, mind you), even to bake with, you can understand why I was so confused and alarmed, right?  FAT is bad.  It's evil.  Morally inferior.  If you use it, heaven forbid if you are it, then there is no lower thing.

But hang on.  We use fats all the time.  Oils, even vegetable and olive oil, are fats.  Omega-3s, which are good for you, those are fats.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting you need duck fat at all in your diet.  But maybe, just maybe, it wasn't a sin to render it or use it.  I wanted to know more about where duck fat clocks in when compared to other fats, so I did a little research to get a handle on it all.  It turns out that duck fat is closer to butter than olive oil and has a comparable number of calories to butter (no surprises there), but actually has less saturated fat than butter and fewer calories than olive oil.

Does that mean you should replace all your butter with it?  Nope.  But neither is using it in one or two recipes a year going to kill us.  So I let curiosity get the better of me and swapped out butter for duck fat in a simple Italian bread recipe.  The result?  Not too shabby!  It had a savory kind of flavor that is unusual in plain bread, making it a nice accompaniment to a soup I'd made out of some leftover Fusion-Style Hoppin' John from earlier in the week.

I used my Dutch oven to bake this, a la the popular no-knead bread recipe that has been raved about on various food blogs every now and then.  I like the deep crustiness (this is a word) that the Dutch oven gives bread.  Plus my pizza stone shattered a few months ago and I haven't replaced it.

(Unrelated tip: some pizza stones can't actually handle high oven temps, rendering them pretty much pointless, so be sure to check the stone's max temp before you buy it.)

The original recipe is excellent if you prefer your recipes sans duck fat and are just looking for a simple, no-frills Italian bread recipe (bonus: you can let it rise in the fridge overnight and there's no proofing involved for the yeast).  After all, it's not like you can just buy duck fat any old where.  But if you do have some on hand, or if you're one of those curious people out there who, like me, wondered what the fuss was all about, here's one way to use it up.

Consolidated recipe at the end, as you know by now.

F-Word Italian Bread
Makes 2 Loaves

I started off with two cups of bread flour, one tablespoon of brown sugar, two teaspoons of salt, & five teaspoons of yeast (= 2 packages).

White sugar also a-ok.

And, of course, the star of our show: two tablespoons room-temperature duck fat (softened, that is, not melted).  Feel free to sub in butter or olive oil.  Really.

Is anyone else disturbed that this kind of looks like really delicious ice cream?

I mixed these up for a minute or two until the flour looked more like granules than grains:

It doesn't have to be gorgeous at this point.  That comes later.

To this I added 1.75 cups of warm (not hot) water.  Think not so hot that you'd be afraid to put a baby's fingers in it, but not as cool as room temperature ...if that helps.  After about a minute or so I flicked the mixer speed to high and let it whip up for about two minutes so that everything was thoroughly mixed.

Mmmmmm, dough soup.

Now, the original recipe calls for as much as four more cups of flour added here.  I only added three more cups of bread flour (for a total of five cups in the entire recipe).  You may want to do what I did, which is to add one cup at a time until you hit the right texture.  In case you think finding the "right" texture comes naturally to anyone, you can see here where I kept notes on the side of the fridge as I worked.

Dry-erase markers to make notes and grocery lists on the fridge has been a life-changer for me.

As the notes say, watch out for flying flour when you switch the mixer on.  I have a little trick I use for that, but do beware that if you do this you must be very careful to never let the towel fall into the bowl or you will end up with an extraordinary mess.  And never, ever, EVER reach in after it if it falls in.  Mixers can't tell between dough, towels, and hands.  You will lose fingers.

Imitate at your own risk.

By the third cup of flour I had a ball of dough that juuuuuust came together after about three minutes with the dough hook.  It was a very, very stiff dough that -- as you can see from my notes -- had me a little worried.

Is this dough or concrete?  Nobody can tell at this point.

From there I kneaded it on low for six minutes.  I let it sit for seven(ish) minutes before turning on the mixer again for another seven minutes of kneading.  What I got on the other end of this process was silky, elastic, press-it-and-it-bounces-back dough.  It still amazes me every time.

Lighting change optional.

I spritzed it with a little olive oil, turned it over a few times, covered the bowl with a warm, damp cloth, and put it someplace warm to rise.  The original recipe calls for overnight rising in the fridge, which I have no doubt leads to a fluffier texture and and more complex flavor.  (Letting yeast sit is the key to a lot of breads, particularly those that use a biga, including Amish Friendship Bread -- which I will make one of these days... maybe.)

Ah! Godzilla!

About 1.25 hours was what it took at room temperature.  It might take more or less time for you so just check it now and then.  

At that point I split the dough in two, placed each in a separate bowl, gave another quick spritz of oil, and let them sit for another half hour or so.  In that time they doubled again.

Tucking it around itself, like a Popple, is the key to a nice, round loaf or roll.

While the dough was going through the second rise, I cranked the oven up to 425F and put my cast-iron Dutch oven in, including the lid.  Be very, very careful if you go this route: you'll want a good pair of mitts since 425 is hot and the cast iron seems to conduct heat through mitts particularly well.  Also, beware that you don't forget that the lid is just as hot as the pan when you go to move it around later.  It's been more than once that I've burned my fingers that way.

At least 20 minutes with the empty pot in the 425-degree oven should be enough to warm it up.  If you'd rather use a pizza stone or a regular baking sheet, go for it.  It's your bread, bake it however you want.

If you use the Dutch oven like I did, you've got two choices for getting the dough into the pan:  (1) do it in the oven; or, (2) take the pot out and do it on a cooling rack (DO NOT put the hot pot down on your counter!!).  I chose the latter because I fear the oven and I was balancing a camera at the same time.

Plop your dough in gently, quickly brush it down with a little oil (I used more duck fat with a little parmesan cheese and garlic powder mixed in for funsies), put the lid back on (MITTS!!) and slide the whole shebang back into the oven.

Clearly a few finger dents won't kill the loaf, so no need to get too worked up.

20 minutes later remove the lid (MITTS!), watching out for smoke, and place the lid on a cooling rack.  Brush the loaf down again (you could use egg white here if you wanted, or olive oil), spin it 180 degrees, and let it bake for another 15ish minutes.  If your loaf is oblong, like an Italian loaf usually is, you're looking more at 10 minutes rather than 15 since it's not as thick in the middle.

Halfway there!

They say you know an Italian/French loaf is done when you can knock on it and it sounds hollow.  I went by smell and color.  It probably could've taken another few minutes without drying out too much.  Fifteen minutes was about perfect for my (admittedly finicky) oven, yours might require a little adjustment.

Normally I'd only make one loaf in any given week and put the other half of the dough in the freezer, but we were giving one of the loaves away to a friend so I baked the second one immediately after.  If you choose the freezer route, thaw the frozen dough overnight in the fridge and then let it sit on the counter about 20 minutes prior to baking to allow it to come up to room temperature.

Was it life-changing, outer-space bread?  No.  But it was pretty good and it did have a bit of an umami note that was nice with a little soup and red wine.  Doc took a shine to it, but then again he has yet to meet a carb he didn't love.

 I thought it went especially well with some pear preserves we had left over from Christmas.  The texture was dense enough that it'd make good sandwich bread.  And if you've only got butter or olive oil on hand, I honestly think those will serve you just as well.  Still, it's nice to try new things now and then, eh?

Duck!  F-Word Italian Bread
Makes: 2 Loaves


  • 2 cups + 3ish cups bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 5 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons room-temperature duck fat (can sub softened butter or olive oil)
  • 1.75 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 egg white (optional)

  1. Place 2 cups of flour with the salt, sugar, yeast and duck fat (or oil/butter) in a mixing bowl.  Whisk for 1-2 minutes, until the flour takes on a granular appearance.
  2. Add the water and whisk for another 2-3 minutes at a high speed.
  3. Add the remaining flour one cup at a time, mixing thoroughly between each.  Add flour until the dough becomes stiff and just a little tacky (sticky) to the touch.  How much is required may depend on the humidity in your area, 3 cups is an approximate value.
  4. Once the dough comes together, knead 6 minutes.
  5. Allow to rest, untouched, for 7 minutes.
  6. Knead another 7 minutes.  The dough should be elastic and velvety to the touch at this point.
  7. Splash a small amount of oil over the dough, turn, and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel.  Set in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled, about 1-2 hours.
  8. Punch down the dough, divide in half, and place in separate bowls.  Splash with a small amount of oil, turn, and cover again for another 30-60 minutes.  
  9. While the dough rests, turn the oven on to 425 degrees F and place a Dutch oven on the second-to-lowest rack.  Allow the Dutch oven to heat, empty, for at least 20 minutes.  Beware of smoke when opening the oven.
  10. Using sturdy oven mitts, uncover the Dutch oven and place one of the dough balls into the pot.  Quickly brush the top with oil, replace the lid, and close the oven door.
  11. Bake 20 minutes.
  12. Using sturdy oven mitts, uncover the Dutch oven and place the lid on a cooling rack (again, beware of smoke escaping the pot).  Quickly brush the top of the loaf again with either oil or an egg white and bake, uncovered, for an additional 15-20 minutes.  (Time may need to be adjusted for your oven or shortened if using a different pan.)  Loaf is done when the loaf makes a hollow sound when tapped, or when it reaches 190 degrees.
  13. Allow to cool in the Dutch oven for 10 minutes.  Using oven mitts, remove the loaf to a cooling rack for an additional 10 minutes before cutting.

  • If only making one loaf, wrap the second in plastic wrap or a gallon freezer bag and place in freezer.  To thaw frozen dough: remove the dough from the freezer and allow to defrost overnight in the fridge.  20 minutes prior to baking place the dough on the counter to allow it to come to room temperature.
  • This bread is particularly well-suited to aromatic mix-ins such as thyme, rosemary, grated cheese, and roasted garlic or garlic powder.  Feel free to experiment!
  • Do be careful of the smoke that can build up in the Dutch oven.  Leaning too close when uncovering it can result in a really painful eyeful of smoke.
  • Cutting before the 20 minutes is up can result in a gummy texture on the inside of the bread, so be strong!

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