Seminal Semonlia

I’ve mentioned before that I have more than a few bread recipes that I consider my “Nemesis Loaves”. I bake them, they fail, I bake them again. It can be disheartening but I take this as the process of becoming a better bread baker. One of these is Sicilian Sesame Semolina Bread, which is a recipe I got from the Zingerman’s Bakehouse book, which I’ve transcribed below.

This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve attempted this loaf  and I think I’ve finally started to understand what it takes to bake it successfully. Previous attempts have been over-proved, poorly shaped, inadequately scored. This time around I got it…more right, which, to be honest, is all I ever truly want from my efforts. More right each time brings me closer to perfection.

This is a recipe that requires a poolish starter, which is about as close as I get to sourdough. Poolish is a highly fluid yeast-cultured dough. It’s a type of pre-ferment traditionally used in the production of French bakery products. It’s high hydration with equal parts water and flour and it ferments over many hours before it goes into the actual bread dough. It does add a slightly tangy taste to the bread, though not as noticeable as in sourdough. Many of the artisan-style breads I want to make use this pre-ferment, which makes them all-day affairs. Not that I’m complaining, mind you; I love having projects like this to occupy my time.

There’s something immensely satisfying and thrilling about engaging in this culinary experience that’s been a part of civilization for millennia. A baker in Ancient Egypt would not find the process I followed to bake these loaves totally unfamiliar. This amazing connection across time makes me feel as though I’m finally starting to find my place in the Universe.

THE RECIPE

Sicilian Sesame Semolina Bread
Source: Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Yield: 2 Round Loaves

Ingredients

Poolish (Pre-Ferment)
• All-purpose Flour – ¾ cup plus 1 Tbsp (114g)
• Water – ½ cup
• Instant yeast ⅛ tsp

Final Dough
• Water, room temperature – 2½ cups plus 1½ (608g)
• Poolish – allInstant yeast – ½ tsp
• Duram flour – 2 cups (300g)
• Sea salt – 1 Tbsp plus ¼ tsp (23g)
• Semolina flour – 4¼ cups (681g)
• Sesame seeds, for coating – 2 cups  (280g)

Make The Poolish
Mix all the ingredients in a medium bowl until incorporated. Loosely cover with plastic wrap
(I’ve been using inexpensive shower caps for this) and allow to ferment for 8 hours. You can use it or refrigerate it for use within 24 hours.

Mix the Dough
In a large bowl, add the water, polish, and yeast. Combine thoroughly with a wooden spoon or dough whisk. Add the duram flour and mix well. The dough will look like thick pancake batter. Add the salt and semolina flour and mix thoroughly. When the mixture comes together and starts to barely form a ball, scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a clean, unfloured work surface.

Kneed the dough for 6 to 8 minutes. Don’t add any extra flour. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise for about 4 hours. Check it after 3 hours, though. Depending on your climate, it could take less than 4 hours for this first rise. 

Remove the dough and place it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two even pieces (I use a scale) and reshape each into a ball.

Place the pre-shaped loaves on a lightly floured work surface and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Allow them to rest for 45 minutes.

Once the dough has relaxed, shape both loaves into a round. Using a pastry brush, wet the tops with water and cover completely with sesame seeds by rolling the loaves, wet side down, in a tray
covered with the sesame seeds.

Cover the loaves and allow them to proof for 1 to 1¼ hours. Again, your working conditions will affect how long the loaves proof. Check them just before 1 hour.

45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450º. If you have a baking stone and a cast iron skillet, place them in the oven now. The cast iron is for making steam.

Place the loaves on a cornmeal-dusted peel. Score each loaf to encourage rising and discourage ripping and place them on the baking stone. At this point I throw some ice cubes in the cast iron to make steam. Some folks pour boiling water in it but I’m nowhere near adroit enough to do that without spilling a lot of water everywhere.

Bake for 38 minutes, until the bread is nicely browned. Remove from the oven, place on a wire rack, and cool completely.

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