Sunday, August 17, 2014

Polenta Bread


Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn. 
- Garrison Keillor 

I grew up with cornmeal, such an American thing, hushpuppies deep fried, dipped in powdered sugar and eaten with Florida fish and seafood dinners; cornbread dotted with hot green jalapenos or salty bacon, sliced and eaten at barbecue joints. Corn muffins with their faint sweetness, broken open, slathered with salty butter until it melts against the warm crumb becoming damp and moist, a deeper yellow. And we won't even mention the fresh corn on the cob all summer long, the bowls of cornflakes or the mountains of popcorn I must've eaten over the years. Let's stick to the glories of cornmeal.

Polenta? Oh, you mean Italian grits. 

I then discovered polenta while living in Italy. Prepared to be eaten smooth and velvety, a cross between oatmeal and grits, warm and comforting, topped with mushrooms in a thick red sauce or a smooth gorgonzola cream sauce at our favorite little pizza joint. Special order when you really wanted something other than their two-inch high deep-dish pizza. There was a fabulous restaurant up at the tippy top of a mountain above Bergamo, a stunning old convent that had been transformed into a restaurant. All summer long under the star-studded night sky, tables were spread about in the courtyard of the convent encircling a huge open grill onto which slabs of ribs, halves of chickens, sausages and steaks would be tossed, seared and charred and brought to each table piled high on platters placed in the center of the party. The grilled meat would be served with bowls of polenta, whiter than the yellow corn polenta I had come to know, and studded with fresh herbs, sage and rosemary. A little bit of heaven in the spot so close to the sky.

Or gnocchi alla romana, polenta cooked and then spread out into a thin layer on a baking sheet to cool, cut into rounds and lined up, just overlapping, in a baking dish and dusted generously with parmesan cheese and baked. Or rounds of cooked, cooled polenta fried in olive oil, eaten hot and crispy straight from the pan. Comfort food, indeed.

So happy I was when our Bread Baking Babe Hostess of the Month Elizabeth from the blog from OUR kitchen selected Polenta Bread for this month's challenge! Anything made with cornflour or cornmeal is perfect in my book for I love the texture and the flavor any and all of them give a bread. Inspired by Della Fattoria's Polenta Bread from Artisan Baking Across America: the Breads, the Bakers, the Best Recipes by Maggie Glezer, this is a beautiful rustic bread that would pair so well with any soup, cheese or stew, or a platter of grilled meats!

As you can see, the crust of my Polenta Bread did not color. At all. As naked and pale as when it went into the oven. I do need a baking stone. But it was delicious and husband went nuts for it! He loves it and, once again, gave a Bread Baking Babes' bread a double thumbs up.

Go to Elizabeth's blog for her detailed Baking Diary of how she selected the recipe, baked the loaves as well as a lot of bread baking tips and advice (and trivia!). Go to Cathy's blog Bread Experience for a discussion of the difference between polenta and grits and see how she baked her bread on the third day cold from a night in the refrigerator. And both will tell you how you can bake with the Babes as a Bread Baking Buddy!  Then visit the other talented and creative Bread Baking Babes to see how they did:

Bake My Day - Karen
blog from OUR kitchen - Elizabeth
Bread Experience - Cathy
Feeding my Enthusiasms - Pat/Elle
girlichef - Heather
Bread Experience - Cathy
Living in the Kitchen with Puppies - Natashya
Lucullian Delights - Ilva
My Diverse Kitchen - Aparna
My Kitchen In Half Cups - Tanna
Notitie Van Lien - Lien
Thyme for Cooking - Katie (Bitchin’ Bread Baking Babe Bibliothécaire)

Polenta Bread
Inspired by Della Fattoria's Polenta Bread on p.118-119 in Artisan Baking Across America: the Breads, the Bakers, the Best Recipes by Maggie Glezer

The afternoon before:

Tiny Biga

9 g (9 ml) water at 95°F
1/4 g (1/16 tsp) active dry yeast
11 g (4 tsp) unbleached all-purpose flour

The evening before:


60 g (60 ml) water at 95°F
1/4 g (1/16 tsp) active dry yeast
All of the Tiny Biga
100 g (2/3 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour

The morning of:


35 g (3 Tbs) cornmeal aka polenta, coarsely ground
175 g (175 ml) cold water

The morning of:


390 g (390 ml) water at 80F
1/2 g (1/8 tsp) active dry yeast
265 g (1 ¾ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
      -or- 200 g (1.6 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour + 60 g (1/2 cup) whole wheat flour + 5 g (1 ½ tsp) flax seeds, finely ground
      -or- 25 g corn flour + 240 g all-purpose flour
335 g (2 ¼ cups) unbleached bread flour
      -or-10 g (2 tsp) vital wheat gluten + 325 g (2 cups + 3 Tbsp) unbleached all-purpose flour
      -or- 25 g corn flour + 310 g bread flour
All of the starter
18g (1 Tbp + 3/4 tsp) salt
All of the cooled polenta
Polenta/cornmeal, for garnish

Tiny Biga: In the early afternoon of the day before you are baking the bread, whisk the yeast with warm (~96F) water in a smallish bowl until it has dissolved. Using a wooden spoon and/or your hands, mix in the small amount of flour until it is smooth (I kneaded it in my fingers for a few minutes). Cover the bowl with a plate and leave on the counter, out of drafts, to ferment.

Starter: In the evening of the day before you are baking the bread, whisk the starter yeast with warm water in a medium-sized bowl until it has dissolved. Add the tiny biga that should be bubbling nicely. Using a wooden spoon and/or your hands, mix in the starter amount of flour until you have a smooth lump of dough (I kneaded it in my fingers for a few minutes).

Polenta: In the morning of the day you are baking the bread, pour cold water into a small pot on the stove at medium high heat. Add the polenta and using a wooden spoon, cook, stirring constantly until the mixture if thick - about 5 minutes. Apparently, if you have a microwave oven (we don't), you can put the water and polenta into a microwavable container and cook it at high for 4 minutes, stir it and continue to cook for 2 minutes more. (It seems like it is way easier to use the stove rather than the microwave.) Once the polenta is made, remove it from the pot to a plate or shallow container and put it into the fridge to cool.

Mixing the dough: In a large mixing bowl, whisk the dough yeast with warm water until it has dissolved.

Add the starter (that should have doubled and be quite bubbly). Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flours, ground flax and salt. It might be pretty sloppy. Or not. It might just be shaggy.

Kneading: Lay the cooled polenta on top of the dough. Plunge in with your hands to turn and fold the dough in the bowl, kneading until it's smooth (5 to 10 minutes). When the dough is smooth, decide to continue your radical behaviour learned from wayward BBBabes and skip the washing and drying the mixing bowl step. Simply cover the bowl with a plate to rest.

After about 20 minutes, turn and fold the dough a few times. Notice that it is significantly smoother. Cover the bowl with a plate and set it aside in the oven with only the light turned on to rise until it has doubled. Don't worry if it is quite sloppy. If it rises earlier than you expect, simply deflate the dough and allow it to rise again. This will just strengthen the dough.

Shaping: When you are ready to shape the bread, turn it out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into 2 pieces. Trying not to disturb the bubbles too much, shape into two rounds. Liberally spray the tops of the shaped loaves with water. Cover them with cornmeal. (Glezer suggests rolling the sprayed shaped loaves in the cornmeal placed on a plate.) Put each loaves seam-side up in a brotform, tightly woven basket or colander. Cover each one with a mixing bowl and allow them to rise on the counter (or in the oven with only the light turned on) until almost double.

Preheat: Put a baking stone on the middle shelf of the oven and preheat to 375°F (180°C).

Slashing: Turn each loaf out of its container onto a square of parchment paper. Using a very sharp knife (or a razor of lamé if you have one), starting at the center of the loaf and holding the blade almost horizontally, carve a spiral into each loaf. Try not to freak out if the spirals look like vicious circles.

Baking: Liberally spray the tops of the loaves with water. Using a peel, slide them onto the hot stone and bake for about 40 minutes, turning them around once half way through baking, to account for uneven oven heat. The crust should be quite dark and the internal temperature should be somewhere between 200F and 210F. Allow the baked bread to cool completely before cutting into it. It's still baking inside! (Even if you've ignored the instructions about using hot water from the tap, please do not ignore this step.)


Elizabeth said...

Suddenly, I need to learn more about all those delectable toppings that the Italians put on polenta!

But I'm letting myself get distracted from the bread. How very odd that it refuses to brown in the oven! While a stone is nice to have, it shouldn't be a requirement! You're absolutely certain that your oven is heating to what the dial says? (You must be; you are turning out those fabulous cakes.)

Next time, perhaps try inverting a large roasting pan over the bread just as you put it in the oven - to trap the steam coming from the bread. Maybe that will encourage the crust to caramelize.

Still, it's encouraging that the bread tastes good! Ha. That is what candlelit dinners are for - to hide the minor flaws.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Yes, like Elizabeth, I need some of those Italian toppings ... and that convent!
Do you have a mister? I wonder if you could coax some color from a loaf if you dissolved some fine sugar in water and used it to mist a loaf before baking. It's sugar that caramelizes. Knowing me if I did that it would come out black, I know it burns very easily. How hot is your oven? Over the years I've come to bake my breads at higher temps, especially the ones that don't have sugar in the recipe.
Still, If the man enjoys, why fight it. Enjoy.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Love this recipe! Takes cornbread to a totally different level. And you've reminded me I haven't had a hushpuppy in years! Gotta remedy that. ;-) Super post -- thanks.

Katie Zeller said...

Not 'pale' but the color of corn bread made with white corn meal LOL
Who cares, as long as it tastes good, right?

Lien said...

Finally the comment form works!
Love Polenta too, with stewed meat in a dark beer sauce or something... yum.
It may be pale, but it's the yellowish looking one I've seen so far even if it didn't have so much polenta in it. Great crumb too!

Karen Kerr said...

As a California girl, I never had grits until a visit to Charleston about 2 years ago. So good! Cornbread was not common either. Now I can't get enough. Your bread looks gorgeous, Jamie. Mine didn't brown much either (yes, I've made it already, sheepish grin) so I blasted it with convection the last 5 minutes.

Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said...

Growing up in Maine, we didn't do much with corn meal but when I moved to Knoxville for college - it was the rage. Your bread would have Knoxvillians singing your praises. :)

Cathy W. said...

Oh my! So many delicious ways to eat polenta that I never knew about. Your loaves look lovely!

Jenni said...

I love a bread made in multiple stages--so cool to see it along its journey. Makes me feel like a conductor!

Lovely bread, pale or not, and the crumb is just perfect!

lisa is cooking said...

I love the flavor polenta gives to bread. And, I'll be craving polenta with gorgonzola sauce now. It's been too long since I've cooked polenta!

Terra said...

What a lovely recipe. I love polenta, but didn't think to add it to bread like this. Your bread looks gorgeous! Would be perfect for my Italian sandwich I love! Yum, Hugs, Terra

Nuts about food said...

Corn means home to me: I just got back from the States where I had the sweet white summer corn that you can only get there. Pure heaven... and yes, the corn muffins and all the rest... can you tell I am a little homesick? It made reading this post even nicer, it brought back so many memories of my summer. Thank you!P.S. Gnocchi alla romana are made with semolina, not polenta. The yellow comes from the eggs.

Jamie said...

@Nuts About Food: oy thanks for the correction about gnocchi alla romana. Just goes to show you how long it has been since I've made it...


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