Red Wine and Sage Bread

So, in an attempt to avoid lying, I’m going to try to describe the process. For the sake of the scientific I’ve started with a list of ingredients, but need to put in fair warning. I cook with my touch, look and taste. Though its necessary to have measuring implements about, I get the result by feel as much as anything. This is a necessary thing, as not all ingredients are alike. An egg comes in sizes from tiny to mammoth, different flours need different amounts of water to achieve the same result. You must learn to get into the experience, use your emotion and touch as much as your intelligence. Not unlike sex then.

The ingredients for one loaf:

500g Strong White Flour, alternatively 400g White, 100g Wholemeal
150ml Water
200ml Red Wine
2-4 table spoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 tea spoons salt
1 ½ tea spoons dried yeast
20-30 fresh Sage leaves or 2 table spoons dried Sage

For variations use White Wine instead of Red, throw in a couple crushed garlic cloves or ground black pepper, or replace the Sage with your favourite herb.

Simple no?

Now, on to the tough bit.

  1. Dried yeast works best when given adequate time to activate and form a strong culture. Recipe books always start with “100 ml of tepid water”. What the hell is that? Remember, with yeast, warm is good, cold is bad. So, take 50ml of freshly boiled water and add 50ml of cold water. I use filtered water as yeast tends not to like fluoride or chlorine, but if all you have is bottled Spring Water that has neither of the above the minerals can add some interesting overtones to the flavour of the bread. Sprinkle your yeast on top of your warm water and leave to sit for 5-10 minutes. Its perfect when the yeast “pops” and forms a layer of foamy scum on top. It should smell good and yeasty.
  2. Separately, measure out your flour. The recipe books recommend warming the flour in the oven at 50 degrees first, but I find that makes no difference so long as the flour is room temperature (I have a friend who keeps hers in the fridge to avoid bugs). I like mixing a small bit of Wholemeal into the mix. At a proportion of 1:4 the overriding white flour keeps the bread light, but just a bit of wholemeal adds some texture and a bit of nuttiness to the final load. Add in the salt and mix it up. Again, recipe books say you should sift the flour, but that’s really unnecessary with modern flours so long as you’ve kept it in a dry place.
  3. When the yeast is activated, mix it up until the scum is gone from the top. Make a small dent in your flour and pour the yeast mixture in. Just lightly mix in a bit of flour until you’ve got a loose batter in the centre. Cover and leave it in a warmish place for 20 minutes. This is known as “sponging” in the recipe books, and is done to give the yeast a good start. When kneading in the next step you loose any airiness created, but that isn’t the point. Its all about letting the yeast grow nice and strong.
  4. Add the wine, oil and Sage. I really do prefer fresh Sage, roughly chopped. If you even have room for a couple pots outside, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme are pretty robust plants, not even needing a huge amount of water. All are old English Herbs, been in use for as long as recipes on this Isle have been recorded. Now, about the amount of water & wine to add. This is one of those points that just takes some trying out as how much you should add depends on the flour you’re using. Add the wine first, then slowly add in water as you mix the dough. Keep adding it until you get a firm ball, too little and its still flacky, too much and the mix becomes liquid (which is what you want for a Focassia, but not this bread). You can add more as you kneed it if its too firm, but better to be slightly dry than slightly wet, otherwise your loaf won’t hold its shape.
  5. Now its time to kneed. Personally I let a mixer with a dough hook do the job. My father in law preferred to bash the bread manually as a stress reduction exercise, but that’s too much like hard work. The recipe books say to kneed for ten minutes. It might be less, it might be more. What you’re looking for is the dough in a smooth, almost silky consistent texture. I love it when its like this, and always play with the dough a little when its to this stage, its such a sensual feel.
  6. Right, drop the dough ball in a clean oiled bowl (glass is best, both plastic and metal bowls can taint the taste of the dough). Cover it with a clean tea towel (all recipe books I’ve read specifically require a tea towel, go figure) and leave it. Now, here some more hints learned the hard way. The yeast likes it warm and moist. If your room is cold, or too dry, use the oven, otherwise just leave it out. If you can leave it in warm sunlight all the better (maybe just wet the covering cloth a bit to ensure the dough doesn’t form a dry crust). If you do use the oven, don’t get it too warm, just 50 degrees or less, and spray the inside walls with water to keep it humid.
  7. The longer you leave it to rise, the better (up to about 4 hours), just make sure you knock it back once or twice. I always enjoy this, just punch it in the middle until it deflates, though make sure your hand or the utensil you use is clean (I once destroyed a load because my hand still had wet soap on it, it did something to the yeast and it all went flat). You’re looking for the dough to roughly double in size. The knocking back is important, but not the end of the world if you miss it. If the dough over rises, it will flop in the oven is all, but you have one last chance to correct it.
  8. Now its time to shape the dough, another favourite step. Most of the recipe books warn you to be very gentle when you’re doing it. Only through experience did I learn that you don’t *really* have to be gentle, just don’t go so far that you’re kneeding it again. Because this dough has lots of Olive Oil in it, I’ve found it better to oil my hands that dust them with flower. Do though sprinkle some flour on your work surface to avoid things getting sticky. I’m just going to describe two methods of shaping, there are literally hundreds. The importance of shaping is to get an even consistency of air within the dough. In the bowl, it will have been very mixed up, with some parts very active, some not at all.So, if you want a round loaf you “chafe” the bread, which is to gently turn the risen ball of dough tucking in the lower edge as you go. Turn the dough around fully three or four times. What this does is pull the top of the dough out, and pushes it in at the bottom. If done right it essentially pulls the dough around in on itself to even things out.If you want a long loaf gently pull the dough out into a rough rectangle. Pull one long edge over on itself in one third to the middle, then do the same with the other edge over on top of it. Do the same from the side, but don’t layer them on top of each other, have the edges meet in the middle. Then turn the loaf over onto your baking tray and ta da, a perfect long loaf with nice even edges.
  9. Now, one last waiting time. Give the loaf ideally a half hour to “prove” itself and rise one final time. Don’t do any longer than a half hour, or it will over rise. Also, don’t worry if you don’t have time for this, the dough will rise one final time quite actively in the oven as it bakes. Before it goes in the oven use the sharpest (and you need very sharp indeed to cut dough) knife you have to slice the top of the loaf. Either one long cut down the centre for a long loaf, or an ‘X’ on a round loaf. Be creative if you want to, it doesn’t hurt the dough. What it does do is give the dough a chance to continue rising as it bakes given the outer surface will start to form a hard crust. Its not the end of the world if you don’t, the bread will still taste perfect, but might look a bit messy if the crust cracks as the inside still expands.
  10. Have your oven warm and ready, I use about 200 degrees C. Again, spray the inside walls of the oven with water. Its still important to keep it moist. The water will react with the baking crust to help it firm up and slightly caramelise the starches improving the flavour.
  11. The one things the recipe books differ on is how long to bake. At 200 degrees I bake for somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. Frankly, the longer the better so long as you don’t burn the crust. You can always use butter to moisten up the inside when you cut it, if its too dry. Baking it for too short a time leaves a too moist interior, which gets sticky and isn’t as nice to eat. The rule of thumb for testing is to turn the loaf over and knock the bottom. If you get a hollow sound its likely done. I usually get it to this point, then give it another five minutes to be sure.
  12. Once done rest the bread on a raised metal grill outside the oven so the steam can escape from all sides. This is an important step, as getting the steam out just helps the consistency. If you don’t, and cut right away, the middle of the bread can still be a bit sticky. Sometimes I let it rest a few minutes, then pop it back in the oven for no more than a minute or two to firm the crust up again, as it can soften as it rests.
  13. Cut, eat and enjoy. This is a very flavoursome loaf, so is nice just on its own with butter, or with a good strong cheese like a gorgonzola or ripe brie. Its particularly nice with a Smokey Ham and a little relish (I do a nice green bean chutney that’s fantastic with ham, but that’s another story).

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