This sophisticated loaf calls on the elegant combination of sweet figs and earthy fennel seeds for a bread that’s perfect with cheese and charcuterie plates. We wanted our loaf to have the rustic and open crumb of great bakery breads, so we turned to our Dutch oven. Often, artisanal-style breads are baked on preheated baking stones and lava rocks are placed in the oven to create a moist environment; together, the hot stone and the steam produce an open, airy crumb, a good lift, and a nicely browned, crisp crust. We found that we could do away with both of these specialty items and achieve the same effects by preheating our (empty) Dutch oven. The Dutch oven’s heavy cast-iron construction helps it retain heat effectively, similar to a baking stone. Putting the loaf in the hot Dutch oven and covering the pot created a humid, moist environment reminiscent of that created by lava rocks. Thrilled that we didn’t need to buy additional equipment to make perfect bread, we turned our attention to building flavor in the dough. Swapping out some of the bread flour for rye flour added interest and depth. We also used a sponge, a mixture of a portion of the dough’s flour, water, and yeast that is allowed to ferment for around 6 hours to develop more complex flavor. Introducing a series of folds as the dough rose incorporated air, which gave it better structure and a more open crumb. Gently pressing the dough into a round before shaping it into a ball relaxed the gluten network for better extensibility and redistributed the yeast so it could continue to work. Finally, to give the finished loaf an even more rustic appearance and a unique crunch, we dusted it with cornmeal. While any variety of dried figs will work, we especially like the flavor of Calimyrna figs. Use light or medium rye flour; dark rye flour is overpowering.
- Yield: 1 loaf
- Total Time: 4 Hours 30 Minutes
- 1 cup (5½ ounces) bread flour
- ¾ cup (6 ounces) water, room temperature
- ⅛ teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (6¼ ounces) bread flour
- 1 cup (5½ ounces) light or medium rye flour
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1½ teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
- 1 cup water (8 ounces), room temperature
- 1 cup dried figs, stemmed and chopped coarse Cornmeal
For the Sponge
- Stir all ingredients in 4-cup liquid measuring cup with wooden spoon until well combined. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until sponge has risen and begins to collapse, about 6 hours (sponge can sit at room temperature for up to 24 hours). For the Dough
- Whisk bread flour, rye flour, fennel seeds, salt, and yeast together in bowl of stand mixer. Stir water into sponge with wooden spoon until well combined. Using dough hook on low speed, slowly add sponge mixture to flour mixture and mix until cohesive dough starts to form and no dry flour remains, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed.
- Increase speed to medium-low and continue to knead until dough is smooth, elastic, and slightly sticky, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to low, slowly add figs, ¼ cup at a time, and mix until mostly incorporated, about 1 minute. Transfer dough to lightly greased large bowl or container, cover tightly with plastic, and let rise for 30 minutes.
- Using greased bowl scraper (or your fingertips), fold dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward middle. Turn bowl 45 degrees and fold dough again; repeat turning bowl and folding dough 6 more times (total of 8 folds). Cover tightly with plastic; let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat folding and rising every 30 minutes, 2 more times. After third set of folds, cover bowl tightly with plastic and let rise until nearly doubled in size, 45 minutes to 1¼ hours.
- Lay 18 by 12-inch sheet of parchment paper on counter, lightly spray with vegetable oil spray, and dust evenly with cornmeal. Transfer dough to lightly floured counter. Using lightly floured hands, press and stretch dough into 10-inch round, deflating any gas pockets larger than 1 inch.
- Working around circumference of dough, fold edges toward center until ball forms. Flip dough ball seam side down and, using your cupped hands, drag in small circles on counter until dough feels taut and round and all seams are secured on underside of loaf.
- Place loaf, seam side down, in center of prepared parchment and cover loosely with greased plastic wrap. Let rise until loaf increases in size by about half and dough springs back minimally when poked gently with your knuckle, about 30 minutes.
- Thirty minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position, place Dutch oven (with lid) on rack, and heat oven to 500 degrees. Holding sharp paring knife or single-edge razor blade at 30-degree angle to loaf, make two 5-inch-long, ½-inch-deep slashes with swift, fluid motion along top of loaf to form cross. Dust top of loaf with cornmeal.
- Carefully transfer pot to wire rack and uncover. Using parchment as sling, gently lower dough into Dutch oven. Cover pot, tucking any excess parchment into pot, and return to oven. Reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees and bake loaf for 15 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until loaf is deep golden brown and registers 205 to 210 degrees, about 20 minutes.
- Using parchment sling, remove loaf from pot and transfer to wire rack; discard parchment. Let cool completely, about 3 hours, before serving.