Walnut Bread

In my opinion, there are only two aromas more pleasant than baking bread: roasting red peppers and sauteing garlic and onions. But since peppers aren't in season yet and the latter is already a nightly occurrence in this household thanks to Ron's Italian heritage, we are baking bread to suffuse the home with indescribable pleasantries.

We've been baking often in the past couple months, up to a loaf every week, but every single time that dough ball hits the heat of the oven, and the savory, yeasty perfume wafts into the living room from the kitchen, I am transported back to a another era. Breaking into the warm crust straight from the oven, i feel like a peasant in prayer over her weekly sustenance. Yes, give us today our daily bread, please. Gratitude abounds for the simple chemical miracle of flour, yeast and water.

We received a beautiful jar of walnut oil from my sister for Christmas and have leftover chopped walnuts from my valentine Hazelnut truffles with Bailey's so we are going to make Walnut Bread. This bread is moist and nutty with a pleasant savory aftertaste thanks to the onions. A perfect addition to any meal. Eat it unadorned, with a slab of herbed butter or use it to sop up your favorite soup. With several risings, homemade bread can be time consuming, so plan on starting no later than noon, in order to serve with dinner.

Ingredients  (yield: 1 loaf)
  • 2 cups milk (we used almond milk, but you can also substitute soy, hemp, rice, etc.)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 32 grams of active dry yeast (we use Fleischmann's All Natural Active Dry Yeast)
  • 1/2 cup walnut oil (and another tablespoon for the first rising)
  • 5 cups flour (we used 1 cup of whole wheat and 4 cups of white wheat, but you can use any combination)
  • 1 tablespoon salt and another dash for sprinkling before baking
  • 3/4 cup chopped onions (white onions preferred, but as you can see, we used red since that is what we had on hand)
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts
  • Water to spritz
Warm up the milk and sugar in a small sauce pan to ~100˚ F.  (No thermometer? Dip in your finger. It should feel like a warm, not hot, bath.) Stir to dissolve the sugar. Once warmed, pour mixture into a large mixing bowl, then add the yeast which will begin to proof/bloom or, in other words, "get foamy." This step, called "proofing," is necessary for the yeast to activate. An instant yeast, which you can add directly to the flour mixture, is available on the market, but we find that the outcome is less predictable and thus prefer proofing ourselves.

While the yeast is doin' its thang, preheat the oven to 100˚ F. We will rise the bread in this oven (since it is a chilly winter day here at the Wolf Den) and are going for an 85˚ oven temp. when the bread finally goes in. Once yeast mixture is completely foamy, add the oil, flour and salt making sure that the salt does not come into direct contact with the yeast (it will "kill" the yeast.) Ron makes a little bowl inside the flour for the salt (see below).

Mix well until it forms a ball and collects off the sides of the bowl. Dump out onto a floured cutting board. We like marble; it is less likely to get "flavored" by uses as a cutting board like wood, and is easy to clean, but granite or stainless steel work just as well. You'll also see further down why we prefer a stone surface over wood. Wash the mixing bowl and set aside for re-use.

Knead the dough into a firm ball, about 5-7 minutes. (New to kneading? Watch this video tutorial on Youtube by Epicurious to work on your technique. It is actually easier than you think. "It is a feeling thing," Ron says, and once you master the skill, you will no longer be daunted by the task and thus relegated to no-knead recipes.) Add about a tablespoon of oil into the bottom of your cleaned mixing bowl. Add the dough and roll around so all sides are covered with oil (this will prevent the dough from drying out and getting a hard crust.) Using your fingers, gently press the ball into the bowl.

Layer with plastic wrap and then a cotton towel and place in the preheated oven. Let it rise (usually about 90 minutes) until the dough doubles in size. Meanwhile measure out and chop onions and walnuts; we will knead them into the dough after the first rising. Once doubled in size, take the dough out of the oven and uncover. Voila, magic!

Collapse the loaf by gently "punching" the dough (basically slowly inserting your first into the center of the gaseous blob) then fold the edges over towards the center. 

Transfer the dough to a unfloured cutting board. (If you are using wood you'll probably need a little flour to prevent sticking, but just beware that at this point you don't really want to be adding that much flour to the mix.) Dimple the ball using your fingers to flatten.

Pour out half of the chopped onion and half of the walnuts onto the dough.
Fold in each edge and knead the dough.

Once incorporated, add in the remaining onion and walnuts and repeat until fully incorporated.  
Note: Knead it as little as possible to get the items incorporated; you don't want to over-knead or work the dough too much at this point; 3 or 4 folds should be enough. Once onions and walnuts are mixed throughout the dough, shape dough into a ball, folding in edges on the underside to make a smooth, round ball.

Add a generous sprinkling of semolina onto a pizza board and place the dough in the center. Cover with a cotton towel and set in a warm spot for the second rise (about 60 minutes). Preheat the oven to 375-400˚F. Once the dough has plumped up a bit, gently run a knife across the top in an X pattern. Spritz with water and sprinkle with salt.

Slide the dough onto a baking pan or pizza stone and pop into the oven.
Bake for 25-35 minutes until a golden-brown, hard crust is formed.
Place on a cooling rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes.

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