Sunday, February 12, 2012

Weekend Baking: French Épi Bread (Sheaf of Wheat)

Here is bread, which strengthens man's heart, and therefore is called the staff of Life. – Matthew Henry

The sheaf of wheat – Épi.
There’s nothing like weekend baking to set your relaxation clock back on schedule.

The smell of freshly baked loaves can somehow erase burden more easily than almost anything else. It is the smell of safety, care and love. So why not fill your house with “leavened prozac”? All it really takes is some time.

These two loaves are called Épi (aypee) because they are cut into the shape of a sheaf of wheat (French: épi de blé).

It’s actually very easy to shape bread. Believe it or not, all bread is not oval, or in the shape we buy sliced from the grocery store. In fact, most types are not.

This French bread recipe uses a biga starter. A biga is a mixture of water, yeast and a little flour that is allowed to rise overnight. This rise allows more complex flavours to develop that then translate into your final bread. Just mix it up the night before. Easy.

Homemade bread is actually not difficult. There’s only a few rules you have to obey. First, make sure your yeast is alive by proofing it. This means not killing it with overheated water. 110 to 115° maximum. 

Just after kneading, before first rise.
And let it proof (get bubbly/creamy) before you proceed further. If the yeast doesn’t activate during proofing, it won’t later. That’s why it’s called proofing. It’s proof your yeast is alive.

Another rule is to let the bread rise in a warm place until doubled. It doesn’t matter what length of time the recipe states. It’s an approximation. If your room is warmer or colder the time will differ. The bread will tell you when it’s ready to go on. I’ve had bread rise for 4 hours on certain days.

These decorative breads will be a hit at the dinner table for certain. It’s just one more way to show those you love that you take an extra (albeit easy) step in what you feed them.

It doesn't hurt that homemade bread is delicious too...

After 2 hours the dough doubled in size.
French Épi (Sheaf of Wheat)
Makes 2 loaves
1 cup flour
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup dry milk powder
2 tsp yeast

To finish
3-1/2 to 4 cups flour
1-1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil

1 egg white, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water
flour for dusting

Cut sheaf of wheat.
Mix together the milk powder and water and heat to 110°F. Proof the yeast in the warm milk until creamy. Make a biga with 1 cup of flour and mix well. Let rise overnight.

The next day mix in the salt, yogurt, oil and enough of the flour to make a moist feeling dough. Knead until smooth, about 5-10 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl covered with plastic and a towel and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Divide and shape each half into a baguette. On one baking sheet lay one down long; on the other shape into a circle of dough. Let rest for 20-30 minutes. Just before cutting, brush with the egg white mixed with the water and dust lightly with flour. Then cut.

Here’s detailed info for final cutting (sheaf of wheat and wheat wreath):

Wheat wreath shape.
1. The following sheaf shaping directions are from The Fresh Loaf, an amazing bread baking site:
Take some sharp kitchen scissors and cut into the dough, about 2 or 3 inches from the end, at a 45 degree angle, stopping about a quarter inch from the bottom.

Lay the piece at a 45 to 60 degree angle to the side. Make another cut about 2 or 3 inches from the first and lay it to the other side. Work down the dough, alternating sides.

2. After the 30 minutes, cut as above but rather than alternating the cut pieces lay them all out radiating from the centre.

Throw 1/2 cup water in the bottom of the oven and quickly close the door. This makes a moist environment for the first rush of expansion of the loaves.

Quickly place the loaves in the oven. Bake at 400°F for 25 to 35 minutes or until they sound hollow when tapped and are golden brown. 

Halfway through change the position of the pans on the racks, switching the lower with the upper and vice versa. This helps facilitate even baking.

Remove from baking sheets and let cool on a wire rack. 

The end result of your labours.

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