Chill out and eat some cranberry walnut bread, man

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I labored a bit over the title of this post and how clunky and awkward it is, but then I realized that by doing so, I was defeating the whole purpose of tonight’s theme:  Relax.  Stop overthinking.  Let whatever happens, happen.

Things have a way of working out.  And when I say that, I don’t mean that they magically become better all the time, but rather that one’s definition of “working out” is surprisingly adaptable.  Outcomes that seemed unacceptable just a short while ago become reasonable, even desirable, once you’re given no option but to accept them.  The human mind is incredible in how eager it is to please itself.

Last weekend I learned that, at least when it comes to baking, it seems the less you think the better off you are.  So today, I applied that logic full force and created this Cranberry Walnut Bread.  It is the most basic of bread doughs: flour, water, yeast and salt.  Artisan breads generally utilize some sort of pre-ferment like a sponge or a poolish, but I did no such thing.  Who has time for that?

Cranberry Walnut Bread (makes 2 loaves)

500 g bread flour –100%
10 g salt –2%
10 g active dry yeast –2%
350 g warm water –70%
pinch of sugar
greedy handful of cranberries
generous sprinkling of walnuts

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1.  Combine the flour and salt in a bowl and set aside.  Add the yeast and a pinch of sugar to the warm water to proof, and wait 5 or 10 minutes.  The yeast should be bubbly and foamy.

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2.  Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the yeast solution.  Mix together with a spoon of some sort until it is too difficult to mix by hand.  If you are as deficient in musculature as I am, this will occur almost immediately.

3.  Move everything into the stand mixer.  With the dough hook attached, beat at a low speed for about 8 minutes.  Let it rest for 5 minutes.  (I threw that in there because it sounded cool; I didn’t actually let it rest at all myself.)

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4.  Add the cranberries and walnuts to the bowl.  Mix until they are well incorporated.  Remember when I said dough doesn’t like party crashers?  Yeah.  This will take a while.  Maybe 5 minutes.  I considered being less shameless in the amount of cranberries I added, but then realized that in my entire life, I have never eaten anything with cranberries in it and thought to myself, “Gee, I wish there weren’t so many cranberries.”  So in they went, the whole unholy lot of them.

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5.  Leave the dough in the bowl with saran wrap over the top and put in a warm place to rise for about an hour, or until you can poke it and create a dent that fills in only halfway, and slowly.  I poked mine many times because that is my favorite part.

6.  Gently plop the risen dough onto your counter and divide in two.  I flattened and folded it a couple of times with the whimsical notion that this would create texture; I have no idea if it had any effect.  Shape into whatever kind of loaf you would like.  I scored it at this point, but you’re not actually supposed to until later, so don’t do that.

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7.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise for another hour.

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8.  After the loaves have sufficiently risen, then it is time to score them.  I made a few weak attempts to poke at my dough with a knife, but I was too afraid of collapsing it to try very hard.   You need a very sharp knife or razor to do this.  Assuming you have one, make a few slits on the top of your loaves, as artistically as you feel compelled to.  This is to direct the expansion of your bread in the oven.

9.  I baked the bread at 375 for 13 minutes and then switched to 400 for another 22 minutes, but all the baking blogs say 450 and it’s generally accepted that you start at a high temperature and end at a low temperature rather than the other way around.  There are all sorts of fancy tips for making artisanal breads that I didn’t bother with, including using a Dutch oven and baking on a pizza stone.  Steam is purportedly necessary to create a good crust, which is why professional bakeries have steam injectors.  There is a technique floating around to replicate the effect at home that involves a bowl of water and some rocks and pipes, and apparently voids the warranty on your oven.  I ended up just spraying the loaves with Pam every 10 minutes.  That’s kind of like steam, right?

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Conclusions

This was by far the easiest and most stress-free bread that I’ve made.  I didn’t bother with a recipe or fancy techniques, I went in with low expectations, and I didn’t hinge my happiness quotient of the day on the outcome.  As a result, it turned out more or less exactly like it was supposed to.  There were some issues–the crust was not that crunchy and I am still having trouble getting a good oven poof going–but in many ways it exceeded expectations.  It was surprisingly flavorful for something with so few flavorings, and somehow stayed perfectly soft all of the next day.  And what seemed like an excessive amount of cranberries and walnuts going in turned out to be just right.

My takeaway, then, is that I really just need to keep things simple and stop obsessing.  That first part I think I can do.

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