Wednesday 24 September 2014

Butternut Polenta Bread

The first sign of fall comes not with the changing of the leaves, but rather with the appearance of recipes. Or so I realized a couple of weeks ago, as I saw - even in the summery heat - the umpteenth new food-related thing with fall or autumn in the title. Of course, it actually is autumn now, although there are enough warm days ahead to make it feel still a long way off. Late summer has that way of making time seem to stand still. Indeed, the first changes were nearly imperceptible, drowned out by the cicadas' droning in the humid air, and the continuing bounty of summer vegetables distracting from the fact that the sunset comes a bit sooner each day. Yet, rather than remain enthralled with the season, we rush its exit as we begin - as if by some kind of instinct - longing for coziness, apple cake, and casseroles (and pumpkin spice lattes, apparently). It might be strange, given how fall inevitably gives way to months of cold, that we welcome the end of summer so readily. Fall has always been my favorite season, so personally I understand getting excited over the subtle signs of the weather changing. But I think there's something special about this transition which causes us to notice things like crisp mornings and reddening leaves with a particular kind of anticipation. The onset of autumn is just so much more sudden than, say, the gradual budding of branches - in a matter of days, the color of a landscape can change completely. Is it any wonder we get so excited about it?

I realize I've written about seasons frequently here - many food blogs do, by nature of the ingredients, but unlike heirloom tomatoes or chanterelle mushrooms or delicate strawberries, the ingredients that go into bread are (generally) not a seasonal food. Yet, the essence of a particular time of year goes much deeper than what can be found at the farmers' market. Many flavors which are so imbued by a season became that way through association and memory more than any inherent quality of the ingredients. Lemons ripen in winter, yet their fresh tartness and bright color bring to mind spring and even summer. The spices which make up "pumpkin spice" or "cider spice" - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom - also make their way into recipes throughout the year. Nonetheless, when combined, they seem to intrinsically evoke the essence of autumn, and we begin to crave them even while the leaves on the trees are still quite green. The traditions of recipes and flavors pervade the season, even after most "seasonal" foods are now available perenially.
Perhaps that's part of it - we used to have so many inherently seasonal, often ephemeral tastes and textures from fresh vegetables and fruits; in colder months, seasonal association of spices and condiments would be influenced by what stored well and even which spices helped preserve other, more perishable foods. 

Now, we're of course fortunate to have access to fresh, nutritive foods throughout the year. But even with our nutritional needs taken care of, still we remain hungry for the ritual of changing flavors. Perhaps the desire for this seasonality actually is some kind of instinct - deeper even than tradition, a biological longing to take part in a cycle of time and place. Interesting to think about, isn't it? But I'll stop there, lest I stray too far into philosophical culinary anthropologist territory. The point I was getting to is: the second sign of fall is the arrival of butternut squashes - which are a very good topping for bread, as it turns out!
I know I explained recently why I might not be posting any new yeast bread recipes for a while. However, after some further thought, I decided to also work on some breads which don't require the sourdough starters or involved techniques or unusual ingredients I've been so enamored with lately. Breads in the style of the ones so many readers here have made and enjoyed. This one is based loosely on my ciabatta recipe, but using different, more flavorful flours. It's been so long since I made a dough of this kind, I wasn't sure what to expect - I started out envisioning something similar to a focaccia, but the recipe ended up taking a different direction with the coarsely-ground cornmeal. (I was so excited a few days ago to find a local source of truly gluten-free white and yellow cornmeal, I just couldn't wait to put them in something!) It's actually somewhere in between focaccia and cornbread in its texture and flavor. But I think it's pretty good. Also like both those breads, this is good for when you want a bread that's almost more like a side dish - pleasantly savory and filling. The natural sweetness of the cornmeal and the squash complement one another nicely, and still allow the flavor of the oil and herbs to come through.
I used rosemary, but I think fresh sage would be even better. (In fact, I'd planned on using sage, but when I went out to my little garden, there were hornets on my sage. So...yeah. Rosemary it is.)

This is a simple two-stage dough: first an overnight sponge, and then the remaining ingredients are added the next day to make the final dough. It's also very easy to make, as there isn't any shaping procedure - the dough goes straight into the dutch oven as soon as it's mixed, and easily spreads to the edges as you press the toppings into the surface.

For the sponge:

60 g finely-ground yellow cornmeal
40 g coarse cornmeal/polenta (I used half yellow and half white)
25 g buckwheat flour
25 g garbanzo flour
10 g potato flour (not the same as potato starch)
180 g boiling water
1/8 tsp dry yeast

Combine the dry ingredients, except the yeast, and stir in the boiling water. Cover the bowl and let stand for about 10 minutes before mixing in the yeast. Cover bowl and set aside for about 14 hours.

For the final dough:

85 g tapioca starch
85 g potato starch (not the same as potato flour)
15 g sweet rice flour
35 g garbanzo flour
2 tsp psyllium husks
1/2 tsp Pomona's citrus pectin
6 g sea salt
1 tsp double-acting baking powder
120 g water, warm
2 tsp white chia meal
up to 1/4 tsp yeast (depending on how active the sponge seems; I used 1/8 tsp)
30 g olive oil (use a flavorful one)
2-3 fresh sage leaves or fresh rosemary sprigs
about 100 g butternut squash, peeled and sliced very thinly (I used a mandoline)
(optional: a small handful of shredded lacinato kale or additional fresh herbs)

Pour the olive oil into the bottom of a dutch oven and add the whole sage leaves or rosemary sprigs. Warm the oil over low heat until the herbs have softened slightly - stir them around occasionally to help release their flavor. Remove from heat, remove the herbs and set aside. Combine all dry ingredients except the chia meal and yeast, and set aside. Stir the warm water into the sponge, followed by the chia meal and yeast. This mixture will thicken over the next couple of minutes. Next add the dry mix, about 1/3rd at a time, to form a soft dough. Then, pour out 15 g of the oil into the dough bowl (make sure it's not too hot!). Mix until the oil is just combined.
Pour most of the remaining oil over the squash slices, leaving a bit in the dutch oven to coat the bottom generously. Sprinkle ~ 1 tsp cornmeal over the bottom of the pot, and scoop the dough into the oiled dutch oven. Cut the sage leaves into small pieces (or strip the rosemary leaves from the stem) and scatter herbs over the surface of the dough. Then arrange the squash slices, overlapping them slightly, gently pressing each slice to help it stick. Cover the dutch oven and set aside to rise for 60-75 minutes. 
Don't worry if the dough doesn't quite reach the sides of the pot - it will expand as it bakes. 

Meanwhile, put an oven rack in the lower half of the oven, and heat the oven to 450º F. When bread is finished rising, place the covered dutch oven into the oven. Bake for 9 minutes covered, then remove the lid and lower the oven temperature to 420º F. Bake for another 40-45 minutes. (Add the kale or additional herbs, if using, about 5 minutes before the bread is done.) Let rest in the pot 10-15 minutes, then remove and let cool at least 45 minutes more before slicing.
P.S. - Speaking of seasonal things... for those of you in NC, the Triangle Gluten Intolerance Festival is this Saturday, September 27, at a pumpkin farm! Plenty of food tastings and family activities, all gluten-free - sounds like fun!

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