Corn Bread

Wait, that doesn’t look like corn bread!  This is not the chemically-leavened quick bread that we know as cornbread, but rather a yeast bread made with a combination of fine corn meal and regular wheat flour.  I had seen the recipe in Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread (you can view an excerpt on the publisher’s website, which includes this recipe and many others), and was curious about it, since I had never had anything like it.  So when Amie asked me whether I wanted to make some bread to go with her taco soup or just make some cornbread, I said Yes!

The bread was a big hit.  It has a relatively fine, soft crumb (i.e. the interior of the bread) with a pleasant golden hue and a bit of texture from the yellow corn meal.  But it holds up like bread, rather than crumbling apart if you look at it hard, the way cornbread does.  The flavor is somewhat like cornbread, with a natural sweetness coming from the cornmeal (there is no added sugar).  The crust is closer to “crunchy” than crispy, which we all liked, even the kids who normally avoid crust.  Overall it’s a flavorful, hearty bread that would go great with chili, soup, or lots of other meals (and makes a great snack by itself!)

Don’t be intimidated by the length of the recipe–I just tried to give lots of detail.  It’s not hard, nor is the actual working time very long (although the overall process is, so you have to plan ahead).  I’ve included links to videos demonstrating some of the techniques.  Let me know how it turns out if you try it!

A closer look at the crumb

A quick note on the quantities in this recipe (and bread-making in general): it is very helpful to have a scale to weigh out the ingredients, rather than using volume measurements (Thanks again Cory for the scale you got me last year!).  There can be a lot of variation in how much flour you actually get in a cup, depending on how packed it is, etc.  You’ll get more consistent results if you weigh out the ingredients, but I’ve included both the weights (in oz.) that I used and the volume measurements here.

Poolish:

  • 8 oz. (about 1 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour (ideally unbleached flour)
  • 8 oz. (1 cup) water
  • 1/8 tsp yeast

The night before you want to make the bread, mix together (it should have a consistency like thick oatmeal), cover, and leave on the counter to ferment overnight for 12-18 hours.  The next day it will be bubbly and closer to pancake batter in consistency.  I used half white flour and half whole wheat here, but I would use only white flour next time.  Using a poolish or other type of pre-ferment improves the flavor and rising power of your bread.

Soaker:

  • 8 oz. (about 1 1/2 cups–there is a typo in the Hamelman text, which says 1/4 cup) finely ground corn meal
  • 12.2 oz. (1 1/2 cups) water

Put the corn meal in a bowl and cover with the water (give it a good stir).  Cover the bowl and let it soak on the counter overnight until you make the bread.  This softens the cornmeal so that it absorbs better in the dough.  Alternatively, you can do this for 15 min or more before you mix the final dough, but I just did it the night before when I made the poolish.

Final Dough:

  • the poolish
  • the corn meal soaker
  • 1 lb. (about 3 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
  • 1 T salt (you might cut this back a little if using regular table salt)
  • 1 1/2 tsp instant yeast
  • 3 T extra-virgin olive oil (or maybe corn oil would be good for this bread)

Mix together all ingredients in a mixer with a dough hook attachment, and knead on low-to-medium speed for 5 minutes or so until the dough becomes smooth and elastic (i.e. you can stretch the dough without breaking it).  Alternatively, mix and knead by hand for at least 10 minutes.  The cornmeal interferes with the development of the gluten from the wheat flour, which gives the dough the strength it needs to rise and hold its shape, so you need to knead it well.  This is a relatively stiff dough compared to what I’m used to, and surprisingly non-sticky.  I might adjust the flour/water next time to make it a bit wetter.  Once the dough is developed (well-kneaded), give it a turn or two by hand on the counter and shape it into a smooth ball.  Place in a lightly oiled bowl to rise for about 1 1/2 hours, covered with plastic wrap.

Every 20-30 minutes during the rise time, dump the dough out onto the counter and do a “stretch-and-fold”: pat the dough down a bit into a flat circle.  Grab the left side of the dough and stretch it out and fold into the middle.  Then do the same from the right side so that you’ll have folded the dough in thirds like a letter.  Then stretch out the top and bottom and fold them into the center in the same way.  Turn the dough over and place it back in the bowl to continue rising.  The stretch-and-fold technique does two things: (1) it gently degasses the dough so that the yeast have enough dough around them to eat and stay active, and (2) the stretching helps further develop the gluten the dough needs in order to rise well and hold its shape.

After the 1 1/2 rising period, divide the dough into 2 equal pieces and shape them into smooth balls.  Let the dough relax for 10-15 minutes, then shape into loaves.  You can form boules, as it did, or batards and bake them directly on a hot stone.  You could also bake these in loaf pans (click on the links to find instructions on shaping the loaves).  I formed them into boules and placed them into medium-sized bowls lined with flour-dusted linen cloths.  This helps them keep their round shape during while proofing.  Cover the loaves and proof them (i.e. allow them to rise in their final shape) for about an hour.  Alternatively, you can stick them in the fridge after 15 min or so and leave them for an extended time until you are ready to bake them (up to a day or two).

Preheat the oven to 475F with your stone in place (unless you are baking the bread in loaf pans) and place an oven-proof pan on the floor of the oven (not glass–I use the roasting pan that came with the oven and never gets used for anything else).  When the oven is ready, turn the bread over onto a peel, or a rimless cookie sheet, dusted with flour or corn meal so that the loaf can slide off onto the stone without sticking.  Slash the top of the loaves with a bread knife or razor blade in any pattern you like (use quick but gentle strokes and make the cuts no more than about 1/4 inch deep).  The slashing allows the bread to expand better in the hot oven, and can be decorative as well.  Slide the loaves onto the hot stone (or stick the loaf pans into the oven) quickly and close the door.  Pour about a cup of hot water into the pan on the bottom of the oven and quickly close the door back up (be careful to avoid steam burns–some people use a watering pail for this).  The steam keeps the surface of the bread moist during the first part of baking so that can fully expand, and it significantly improves the color and crispness of the crust.  Bake for about 35-40 minutes until the crust is a rich brown color.  Turn off the oven, crack the door and let it sit in the drying oven for another 10 min. or so before taking it out to cool.

If you prefer a softer crust, bake the bread in loaf pans, take it right out of the oven and out of the pan onto a cooling rack and brush all over the surface of the bread with butter.  Otherwise, just set the bread on a cooling rack.  In either case, let it cool completely before cutting into it, if you can wait that long.  This recipe makes two loaves, but you can cut it in half to make 1.  Enjoy!

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