Category Archives: Hearth Loaf

Country-Style Hearth Loaf with Cornmeal, Cilantro, and Coarse Pepper

mixing the poolish before a party

mixing the poolish before a party

I have a lot of friends here in Brooklyn. Actually, I have a lot of friends here in North Brooklyn. I think it’s pretty wonderful when feeding a friend’s cat over the weekend involves walking exactly one block. Some of these friends have blogs too, like Kenan, who had the genius idea of getting together a group of food and photo bloggers to create a big ole midsummer meal and, well, blog about it! We called it NBBB for North Brooklyn Bloggers’ Banquet.

For me this was good timing. Believe it or not, hardly anyone has actually tasted my bread. I frequently improvise meals for guests with confidence, but most of my loaves thus far have been barely edible! Now that I had a few success stories, it was time to share.

Emily planned to make a soup, in the tradition of her wild soup-night parties. She was deciding between a middle eastern and a mexican theme; I decided to follow her lead with my bread. (As a perfectionist, I’m loathe to mix themes in a meal!) I found two promising recipes in Bread Alone: 100% Whole Wheat Cumin Loaf and Country-Style Hearth Loaf with Cornmeal, Cilantro, and Coarse Pepper. I chose the latter when Emily went south of the border with Cold Avocado Corn Soup with Cilantro Oil.

Following the same process as my first Hearth Loaf, I mixed the poolish the night before. I nearly forget this vital step because I happened to be throwing a roof-top dance party. (Hence the dress!) Whisked together, the water, yeast, and flour went into the fridge. I set my alarm for 10am to bring the bubbling gruel back to room temperature.

emptying my beautiful new bread bowl, about to start kneading

emptying my beautiful new bread bowl, about to start kneading

Around 1pm on Sunday I got to work kneading. The added ingredients made this a fun dough. I measured every ingredient ahead of time (a rare feat for me), I ground pepper corns in a mortar (watch out, they pop!) and I chopped cilantro leaves (from an absurdly large bunch). I attempted to add a lot more flour during the knead but in retrospect I think I could have been even more generous.

Also around 1pm, Cate and Kenan arrived with grand plans. Cate was making an Almond Tart and Currant, Raspberry & Cherry Frozen Yogurt; Kenan documented our exploits with sketches. Cate has a bit of bread experience herself and helped me knead.

Cate and I kneading together

Cate and I kneading together

Sunday was hot. Not an ideal environment for baking bread…nor for hangovers! (And not for sick husbands either – I prescribed air-conditioned bed-rest to poor Joe, who had a bad cold.) The heat does encourage rising dough. Technically a faster rise develops a less flavorful bread, but I had already fermented a very long poolish at a low temperature, and welcomed a fool-proof rise. But I wasn’t looking forward to turning on the oven. Mere sunlight is enough to bring my apartment into the high 80s. So while my bread rose, and Cate slaved away at dessert, I lay on the couch with a water bottle. Emily arrived to start on the soup in the late afternoon.


Around 6pm, the rest of the banqueteers arrived, and chaos ensued. There were no less than 5 cooks in my 10ft x 8ft kitchen, plus 3 photographers. For some reason we never turned on the A/C, and it was definitively over 90 degrees in there! But thanks to our sweaty work, Dory, Jake and Tanveer whipped up three more incredible dishes: Watermelon, Tomato, and Goat Feta Salad, Shell Bean and String Bean Ragout, and Squash Curry Stew. Along with the soup and the dessert, it was an exquisite meal.

The North Brooklyn Bloggers
The North Brooklyn Bloggers

This bread came out very well – right on par with my previous loaf. My crumb and crusts have become pleasantly chewey, I had good oven spring, and the crumb is even (generally a positive trait). I enjoyed the added flavorings but couldn’t taste much more than the pepper! A full tablespoon per loaf is a lot of pepper. These were actually spicy! Next time I try this recipe I plan to cut way back on the pepper and possibly even increase the cilantro. My other plan (for any loaf) is to add more flour during the kneading process. Once again, my loaves spread during proofing. I think I need to give my dough a little more backbone. Luckily I have an excuse to practice – Caroline’s Restoration Farm potluck is right around the corner!

Honey Wheat Bread with Poppy Seeds and Lemon

Honey Lemon Poppy Seed Wheat Bread

Honey Wheat Bread with Lemon and Poppy Seeds

I broke the mold! In fact, it’s still the same Country-Style Hearth Loaf, but with a twist. I felt confident in my resolve to knead more vigorously and bake less. Confident enough to add…STUFF. STUFF can profoundly alter how much a dough will rise, so I’d planned to avoid that challenge at first. (As in any science experiment – we’ve got to limit those variables!) In fact, I usually buy plain loaves at the bakery because they go with everything, but I do love a loaf with a theme.

the ingredients

the ingredients

That weekend, I just happened to have on hand an old bag of poppy seeds and a jar of honey gone crystal. Considering last year’s very successful resolution to avoid wasting food, I was delighted to find a recipe in Bread Alone for Honey Wheat Bread with Poppy Seeds and Lemon. The recipe is essentially a Country-Style Hearth Loaf, except that it calls for half the flour to be whole wheat. Classic Liz: I just substituted my trusty ole 20% bran flour. 20% bran really is plenty for me, and besides, the 25-lb bag I bought from Wild Hive has been taking up far too much space in my fridge. (Oh, to have a pantry…and a root cellar!)

So I kneaded like a mad woman, once splitting the wad of dough into two pieces. That helped me really work the dough without tiring. I also made use of an autolyse, a technique I learned from Farmgirl Susan. I kneaded the dough for a few minutes, let it rest on the counter for 20 minutes, and then finished the kneading. I should be adding the salt to the dough after the autolyse, but I didn’t think to try an autolyse until I’d already mixed the dough. Salt tightens the gluten strands; kneading before adding salt helps develop gluten faster. I am already kneading for longer than recommended – I hope that an autolyse and practice will help quicken the process.

I’m beginning to think I am actually adding too little flour. Though I consistently add at least the maximum measure of flour, my doughs still feel tacky. Every flour absorbs a different volume of water; perhaps mine is thirstier than most. Searching for answers I stumbled upon Baking 911. Though aesthetically upsetting, this site compiles a motherload of bread baking tips, and I found one of my symptoms: “A free-form loaf spread too much as it was rising.”  The answer? “The dough was too soft. Free-form loaves must be quite firm when shaped. Next time, add more flour, use a ring to contain the dough, or let it rise in a basket.” Well, I am already using a basket for proofing, but my loaves seem to spread out the instant they’re on the peel. It’s time to try more flour!

great crumb

great crumb

Nonetheless, this was good bread! I baked the bread only 30 minutes instead of the suggested 40 minutes and achieved a soft, chewy crust. No more croutons! Though I still haven’t topped that sourdough back in April, I think this loaf is one of the best yet!

P.S. For my birthday, two co-workers bought me Kneedlessly Simple – a cookbook of knead-free breads. I’m looking forward to trying something completely new!



Well, you missed pita bread and caramelized onion foccacia. I would have written about pita but my photos were accidentally deleted! Suffice to say I was incredibly impressed with the “puff” that creates the pita pocket, and by cooking only 3 at a time, I was able to improve my technique over the course of a single batch! Next time pita comes to call I will give it a full post. Foccacia, well, foccacia is so much easier that I thought it might be a cheap post topic. But I love it to death all the same.

loaf with a hard crust

Ho-Hum, however, refers to another dogged attempt at the Country Style Hearth Loaf. While acceptable, this latest incarnation shares the same fault as the previous version: an incredibly hard, thick crust. Just cutting a slice creates a flurry of breadcrumbs. I’m thinking that during the next round I’ll try lowering the oven temperature or decreasing the bake time. I’m also noticing that the proofed loaves don’t hold their shape as I transfer them to the peel and slide them into the oven. As a reult they’re a bit flattened when they hit the oven which isn’t helping the crust situation. Next I’ll try more kneading – I could use an arm workout anyway!

Late-Night Labors

My second Hearth Loaf came into the world at 1:37am. It began as a small, wet, unformed poolish Saturday morning on May 30th. As a young poolish it grew and bubbled and smelled sweetly of yeast. Through the first fermentation it rose gracefully over the lip of its bowl, delighting me with its exuberance. I lovingly split and shaped it into two round loaves, allowing a chance to rest between. In the midst of proofing, I despaired that I could not care for this loaf in every way it deserved. I saw looming ahead a 5:30am call time on my husband’s film shoot. Pursuing my maternal instincts I vowed to properly raise my young loaves, no matter the cost to myself. Retiring at 11pm, I set an alarm for 12:30am, another for 1:00am, and yet another for 1:40am. At the first alarm I arose to light the oven. At the second alarm I bolted up to slide the hapless loaves into the inferno. Sleeping fitfully on the sofa, I woke to check them, and was dismayed to find them both sagging frightfully under their own weight. I paced until 1:37, then removed them from the hellish heat. Their youthful promise faded beneath a thick, hard crust and wrinkled edge. Joseph suggested purposing a loaf for sport: a discus throw seemed fitting, but I lamented such a base fate! Old before their time, I consumed them both, determined to give meaning to their short lives.

discus bread

Pennsylvania Poolish

My return to “humble yeast breads” was a fair success!

Classic Country

I flipped back to the very first recipe in my Bread Alone bakebook: Classic Country-Style Hearth Loaf. “A Learning Loaf,” they call it. I’d been attempting sourdough because the kind of bread I enjoy has a chewy crust and a rich, hearty taste and texture. I’d rather buy my bread at the store than eat a tasteless homemade white. Bread Alone’s “learning loaf” is designed to teach you how to work a poolish into your routine. A poolish is a wet mixture of flour, water and yeast left out to ferment for 2-10 hours. It’s like a mini-sourdough starter. It’s one of the major differences between bakery bread and homemade bread – but it doesn’t have to be that way! It adds flavor and texture but not the sourness of a true starter.

So the thing about this poolish (my first) is that is traveled! I was headed down to visit my sister in Philly on Saturday morning and decided to bake despite going out of town. So I packed up my flour and a few tools, mixed up the poolish, and buckled all of us in for a two-hour drive. Yes, my little covered bowl was buckled in to the passenger seat! I wish I’d thought to take a picture. It’s a humorous metaphor for what a needy little creature rising dough can be! And just like a fussy baby, my poolish was lulled to compliance by a good spin around the block. (At least, that’s how my sis had to be put to bed!) The perk of fermenting the poolish in the car is that I had complete control over the temperature. It was a bit toasty for human-folk but my poolish enjoyed a stable 78 degrees the whole way to Philly.

Adding more flour, yeast and water later in the day I created a true dough and gave it a good kneading. Then there was a rise, a deflate, a shape, and a proofing. Again my proofing sluggishly stretched passed midnight but I managed to stay awake and was rewarded by a loaf that was – miraculously – not dense! I give it a grade “B” – hearty sandwich stock. Not quite the airy dipping loaf I’m after, but I’d call it a crowd-pleaser nonetheless. We’ll have to ask Julianna, my extraordinary yoga teacher, who recieved one of these loaves for her birthday!

Soon I must attempt another shape – these rounds are starting to be boring. And somehow figure out how those odd puckers developed on the crust!

My thanks to Barbara Kingsolver, whose wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle kept me awake during the proofing.

And also thanks to my co-worker (and expert baker) Ilene for recommending Red Star yeast; I brought my sister on a marathon trek to a Philadelphia Whole Foods in search of a second packet.