There is such a thing as falling in love (innamorarsi) with a recipe at first sight. The moment I saw a photo of Cranberry orange braided bread on the King Arthur Flour's catalog, I knew that my version of it would soon come out of the oven. Besides being the kind of bread I sometimes like to bake, it was exactly what I was looking for to go with the book I had just finished reading: the Outcast by Jolina Petersheim.
I was very intrigued by the description of the novel as a modern retelling of "The Scarlet Letter," a book that I read when I was in college and loved (I also saw the 1979 miniseries and liked it a lot). Isn't it interesting that the story narrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850 is still relevant 160 years later?
I read the Outcast right after The Baker's Daughter and it made me continue the meditation on evil that the earlier book had triggered. The story told in the Outcast shows how much misery we bring to the world the moment we decide, as mentioned in my earlier post, that another person is "less," or that we ourselves are "less." Happiness is only found where the bond connecting people is made of love, a feeling that knows nothing about less or more. The book illustrates what happens to people when love is substituted with judgment. Fortunately, one can travel in the opposite direction and it's never too late to do so.
Parts of the Outcast are set in a Mennonite community and several dishes are mentioned, so my original idea was to make one of them. But the recipes I found were not satisfactory and the unhappiness wrapped around everything in the book in the end made me look elsewhere for something joyful to bring to one of the characters, little Eli, who faces a special challenge when he is diagnosed with a malignant disease. When I saw the recipe for Cranberry orange braided bread, I thought it would be perfect for little Eli recovering from invasive treatments: it is soft and lightly sweet, nourishing and texturally intriguing.
While a touch of sweetness is called for, I think that the amount of sugar in the original recipe is excessive. Also, instead of dried cranberries, I used organic raisins from my pantry. And as usual, I replaced about 20% of the white wheat flour with whole-grain flours (farine integrali). I made other changes and also baked the bread in a slightly different way.
Important: this bread uses a starter that is left to ferment overnight, so plan accordingly.
For the starter:
- 1/2 oz. / 14 g whole spelt flour
- 1/2 oz. / 14 g white whole-wheat flour
- 3 1/2 oz. / 100 g all-purpose flour (King Arthur Flour is the brand I always use to make bread)
- 1/2 cup / 120 ml cool water
- 1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
For the dough:
- 1 oz. / 28 g whole spelt flour
- 1 oz. / 28 g white whole-wheat flour
- 7 oz. / 200 g all-purpose flour (same as above), plus as needed to knead and shape the bread
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast (see Note 1 below)
- 3/4 oz. / 20 g agave nectar or honey
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml olive oil
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk (reserve the egg white)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Grated peel of 1/2 lime
For the filling
- 3 oz. / 85 g raisins, chopped if large
- 3 oz. / 85 g walnuts (see below)
For the surface
- 1 large egg white (see above)
- Poppy seeds (semi di papavero)
Note: the original recipe uses sugar in both the dough and the filling and hence calls for osmotolerant instant yeast, a strain of yeast that is specially formulated for sweet dough; regular instant yeast can be used when osmotolerant is specified, in which case the dough will take longer to rise and proof. In my dough I use a small amount of sweetener, so regular instant yeast should have no problem thriving in that environment.
Make the starter the evening before baking the bread
In a bowl, mix the starter ingredients, cover, and leave at room temperature overnight.
Prepare the walnuts
If your walnuts are freshly cracked, toast them lightly in a dry pan, shaking the pan often.
Otherwise, in her “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone”, Deborah Madison gives instructions on how to treat walnuts to improve their flavor when they aren't freshly cracked, and make them less irritating for people who are sensitive to their skins. Bring a pan of water to a boil, add walnuts and let them stand for one minute, then drain them and absorb the excess moisture with a towel. Finally, spread the walnuts on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat and place them in the oven preheated to 300 F until they have dried out, 15-20 minutes. Remove them from the oven as soon as they are dry. Measure the amount required and chop rather finely.
Make the bread
Combine the starter with the dough ingredients. Let rest 10 minutes or so. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until elastic and satiny.
Place dough in an oiled bowl or suitable container, cover and let rise until puffy, 1 to 2 hours.
With the help of a scale, divide the dough into three pieces. Flatten each one into a 6" x 12" / 15 x 30.5 cm rectangle.
Using again the scale, divide the filling into three equal amounts. Distribute 1 oz. / 28 g of walnuts on each rectangle of dough, then do the same with an equal amount of raisins, leaving a margin of 1 inch / 2.5 cm all around (see photo above: it's not pretty but should make it clear what I mean).
Starting with a long edge, roll each rectangle into a log. Place logs on a lightly floured silicone baking mat resting on the back side of a baking sheet. Braid the logs together.
Cover the braid, and let it rise for 1 to 2 hours, until puffy.
Preheat the oven to 350 F / 177 C, and place another baking sheet in the oven.
When you are ready to bake the braid, combine the egg white previously set aside with 1 tablespoon / 15 ml water, and brush the surface. Sprinkle poppy seeds.
Take the hot baking sheet out of the oven and slide on it the silicone baking mat with the braid. Bake the braid for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden. I use the convection baking option of my oven, which automatically adjusts the temperature. When the bread is done, a digital thermometer inserted into the center should register 190 F / 88 C.
Remove the bread from the oven, and transfer it to a rack to cool. Let it cool undisturbed before slicing.
I know this is partly my imagination and nostalgia playing a trick, but the bread reminds me of panettone, an additional reason for loving it. The thin crust made crisper by poppy seeds, the tender crumb dotted with sweet raisins and crunchy walnuts make this a bread for all meals. As its flavor is subtle, it goes well with both sweet and savory accompaniments, from roasted apple sauce to roasted red pepper and almond dip, from fasole bătută to various cheeses and soups. And like challah, it is perfect for French toast.
Now I need to find out whether little Eli likes it.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
I am sending this bread also to the October edition of Panissimo, a monthly event created by Barbara of Bread & Companatico and Sandra of Indovina chi viene a cena? and hosted this month by Simona of briciole (that is, by me).
This post contains the roundup of the event.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the treccia di pane con uvetta e noci audio file [mp3].
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