The slightly bitter taste of chestnut flour — along with the nuttiness — makes for an interesting loaf, but some of the recipes I’ve seen, with 50% chestnut flour or more, are a bit too heavy for my taste. I tried a couple at lower levels, around 10%, and they weren’t chestnutty enough. So eventually I settled on 20% chestnut flour. I’ve also taken to adding a little wholemeal (10%) to almost all my bread recipes as it seems to add so much depth of flavour. This is enough for two large loaves.

Ingredients:

740 gm active starter at 100% hydration
250 gm, chestnut flour (20%)
125 gm wholemeal flour (10%)
495 gm strong white flour (70%, with the 370 gm flour in the starter)
18 gm salt
440 gm water (65%, with the 370 gm water in the starter)

In a large bowl, add the water to the starter and mix roughly. Mix in the white flour and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Now add the salt, the chestnut flour and the wholemeal flour and mix well. Tip out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead to incorporate all the ingredients. Return to the bowl, cover, and leave for an hour.

Tip out the dough, knead quickly about 20 times and return to the bowl for a further hour. Knead once again and allow to rise again for an hour. The total bulk ferment is thus about three hours.

Prepare two or three containers; I used two well-floured bannetons, but the dough is firm enough that you can also make three longer loaves and do the final rise on a well-floured couche. Shape the dough, place in the containers, and allow to rise. I put them in the fridge, inside plastic bags, overnight.

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C (430°F), slash the loaves and bake for 25 minutes (20 minutes if you make smaller loaves). Turn the oven down to 205°C (400°F), rotate the loaves, and bake for a further 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

The bread keeps well, and is very good with savoury things like salami.

Alfie Venner spent the days before Christmas helping his parents with their wood-fired, sourdough-leavened bakery in Somerset. Part of his recollections :

On my breaks from mixing, stretching and shaping dough with the head baker, I helped mum weighing out the dried fruit for German Stollen bread and rolling out the 100g pieces of marzipan that get carefully rolled into the centre of each loaf. The rich dough that mum makes bears little resemblance to the first Stollen made in 13th Century Saxony from oil, flour, yeast and water. We have Pope Innocent VIII to thank for that; in 1490 he sent what has become known as the ‘butter letter’ to the Saxon Prince allowing the Saxons to use butter during Lent.

That seemed odd. Stollen is (and always has been?) a Christmas bread, so what’s Lent got to do with it? A little sleuthing turned up an article on Wikipedia that had some details. Advent was a fast period, just like Lent, and after a couple of rebuffs and five papal successions Pope Innocent VIII finally permitted the Prince-Elector of Saxony and his household to use butter, and the stollen we know and love was born.

Wikipedia says that the oil that went into stollen before the butter-letter was “expensive, hard to come by, and had to be made from turnips”. I suppose that it was an oil pressed from turnip seeds, or some other Brassica, but as Wikipedians are so fond of saying, “citation needed”. The online history of stollen leaves a lot to be desired. Are there any better sources?

“Something saporito,” she said. “With bits in.”

The Queen of Thanksgiving Turkeys wanted me to bring bread, and those were the specifications. I thought of a nice foccacia, but the timing was too difficult. A schoolnight, with a heavy day before it would not leave enough time. So it had to be a loaf. And the bits could not be cranberries, for all kinds of reasons. So I settled on sun-dried tomatoes and olives, and with absurd hubris thought I would just wing it. I’ve also been fooling around with chestnut flour and that seemed like a good idea. Also some durum flour. And heck, why not some wholemeal too, for even deeper flavour.

Step one was to activate my 100% starter, in three builds, to give me about 575 gm of leaven at 100% hydration. Weighed out into the big mixing bowl, it came in at 568 gm.

I wanted a total dough weight of 1400 gm at 65% hydration; 850 of flour and 550 of water. The starter provided 284 gm of each, leaving me to add 566 gm flour and 271 gm of water.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I decided on 10% each of chestnut flour and wholewheat flour, 40% of durum flour and the balance of Manitoba. To which I added 100 gm of sun-dried tomatoes softened in oil and 100 gm of green olives in oil. Baked to a rich, dark brown and delivered to the party, I failed to snap a single photograph. But it seemed to go down well. There was a hint of bitterness from the chestnut, which also added extra nuttiness, and the bits were pretty good too, the tomato especially offering little explosions of flavour in many, but not all, mouthfuls.

Saporito? I should say so.

Here is the detailed method.

Starting 24 hours before mixing, build starter. To 20 gm of starter, add 20 gm of soft flour and 20 gm of water, stir to mix and leave in a warm place for about 8 hours, until it is light and bubbly. To this, add another 95 gm each of flour and water, mix and leave another 8 hours. Finally, add 165 gm each of flour and water, mix and leave.

Weigh 570 gm of starter into a big mixing bowl. Add 271 gm of water and 330 gm of durum flour. Mix, and leave for 20 minutes to autolyse.

Prepare the tomatoes and olives. Drain off the oil and cut the tomatoes into strips about 1 cm wide. I use scissors for this, and to cut the olives in half crossways. Much easier than fiddling with a knife.

Add remaining dry ingredients — 85 gm fine chestnut flour, 85 gm wholewheat flour and 66 gm of strong bread flour — mix until you have a shaggy mass, then tip out onto the counter and knead to incorporate all the flour.

With bitty loaves like this one I vacillate about adding the bits with the flour or trying to incorporate them afterwards. Just the tomatoes, and I would add them with the flour, but you don’t want the kneading to break up the olives too much. So this time I patted the dough out on the counter, spread the cut up tomatoes and olives on it, rolled the whole lot up and started to knead gently. This is tricky. The oil around the bits tends to prevent the dough mixing in on itself, but persevere and gradually it will change from dough and bits more or less separate to dough with bits in.

Return the dough to the bowl and cover. After 45 minutes, tip the dough out and give it a quick stretch and fold. Return to the bowl and leave for another 45 minutes before giving another stretch and fold. Finally, return to the bowl and allow to rise for another 2 1/2 hours.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured board, divide in two and shape as you prefer. At this point I slipped the shaped loaves, in their bannetons, into a plastic bag and put them in the fridge overnight. I had to, given the timing. But I also wanted to, because the long, slow fermentation would help build lots of flavour. If you don’t refrigerate, allow the loaves to rise for an hour or so.

Heat the oven to 220°C (430°F), gently ease the loaves out onto a tray, slash and bake for 20 minutes. Turn the oven down to 205°C (400°F), rotate the loaves on the tray, and bake for a further 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Recent newspaper reports suggest that people walking past “pleasant ambient odors (e.g., pastries)” are more likely to point out that someone (an experimental stooge) has dropped a glove than people walking past “places with no odor”. One report summed this up as:

The smell of freshly baked bread doesn’t just make you hungry. It makes you kinder.

I’m not sure that the science merits that conclusion. I tracked the research down to a paper in The Journal of Social Psychology, The Sweet Smell of … Implicit Helping: Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Spontaneous Help in Shopping Malls but as it is behind a paywall, I’m not going to investigate further. Except to note that the author, Nicolas Guéguen, seems to have happened on a rich seam of experimental approaches. The sweet smell of… courtship: Effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on women’s receptivity to a man’s courtship request investigated another aspect of social behaviour.

18–25 year old women walking alone in a shopping mall were approached by an attractive 20 year old male-confederate who solicited them for their phone number. The women were solicited as they were walking in areas with pleasant ambient odors (e.g., pastries) or with no odor. It was found that women agreed more often to the confederate’s courtship solicitation in the pleasant smelling areas.

I’m amazed the newspapers didn’t latch onto that one.

NPR last week had a report on the extra-special bread people bake to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I didn’t know that there are special shapes reserved for the New Year challah — round, for the cycle of the year — and that the bread is even sweeter. More to the point, I didn’t know that challah originally referred not to the whole loaf, but to a small portion that the baker removed and gave to the priests as an offering. These days, few bakers do that. But they do take a moment to reflect while holding the small piece of dough.
That’s a nice idea.