Epiphany Loaf

Rose Levy Beranbaum - March 2005

Baking bible diva Rose Levy Beranbaum thought all whole wheat breads were created equally dull and deadweight, until she saw the light. Here is the result of her great awakening.

I once held to the common misconception that whole wheat bread must be dense in texture and bitter in taste. On a trip to the Bay Area, I was invited to an unusual bakery in Oakland, Vital Vittles, which specializes in kosher, organic, 100 percent whole wheat bread. My hosts didn't tell me why they'd invited me until after I'd tasted their bread, when owner Kass Schwin disclosed she had wanted to disprove what she'd heard me say about whole wheat on the radio a year before, during a publication tour for my book The Bread Bible.

To my amazement, her bread gave off the aroma of a new-mown lawn combined with freshly cut hay. Schwin explained that the bitterness that had turned me off whole wheat bread was due to rancidity. It was absent from her bread because she made a flour from freshly ground wheat berries. One of nature's miracles of engineering, a wheat berry will remain viable for decades if stored properly in a cool dry dark place, the fats in the germ protected from oxidation by the bran, its outer coating. The moment the wheat berry is broken, or ground, oxidation occurs and the wheat berry begins its deterioration. Most millers agree that flour, once ground, should be used within three days. After that, certain enzymes are activated that render it undesirable for bread baking. However, if stored for a minimum of three weeks in an airtight container, the flour again becomes usable for up to three months, up to a year if frozen. But for optimum flavor, it's best to use it the day the wheat berries are ground.

Unpacking a few pounds of Schwin's wheat berries stashed in my suitcase on my first day home, I started grinding and developing a recipe for whole wheat bread. To boost its nutritional value further and tip the toque to the government's new dietary guidelines, I decided to create for Food Arts an exemplary loaf enriched with nuts and nut oil. The secrets to achieving lightness of crumb, I discovered, were to use fresh flour and also to prevent the dough from doubling in size during its rising. The latter keeps the fragile gluten from tearing. The result is a soft, moist, slightly chewy loaf, crunchy with walnuts, that captures the multidimensional wheat flavor of the grain.

Whole Wheat Walnut Loaf

Yield: 1 8 1/2" by 4 1/2" by 4 1/4" loaf

Sponge:

  • 1 3/4 cups water, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 Tbsps. honey
  • 3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, freshly ground from red winter wheat berries (see note below)
  • 1 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2 Tbsps. plus 2 tsps. vital wheat gluten
  1. Place water, honey, 2 cups flour, and 1/2 tsp. yeast in a bowl; whisk until very smooth (about 3 minutes).

  2. Whisk together remaining 1 1/2 cups flour, vital wheat gluten, and remaining 1/2 tsp. yeast in another bowl; sprinkle over mixture in first bowl to form flour blanket; cover with plastic wrap; let the mixture sit between 1 and 4 hours (the sponge will break through flour blanket after about 1 1/2 hours).

Dough:

  • 1/3 cup walnut oil, pumpkin seed oil, or vegetable oil
  • 1 3/4 tsps. salt
  • 1 1/2 cups walnuts, lightly toasted, loose skins removed, and coarsely chopped
  • cooking spray or oil (for greasing)
  • whole wheat flour (for dusting)
  1. Place sponge in the bowl of electric mixer fitted with dough hook; beat at low speed until mixture is moistened to form rough dough (about 1 minute); scrape down any bits of dough; cover with plastic wrap; let dough rest 20 minutes.

  2. Add oil; set mixer at low speed; knead 7 minutes, adding salt after oil is mixed in.

  3. Add walnuts; knead 3 minutes (dough won't be elastic at this point and won't form a ball; it should be sticky enough to cling to fingers; if not, spray it with water; knead).

  4. Place dough in 3-quart bowl lightly greased with cooking spray or oil; press down dough; lightly spritz the top with cooking spray or oil; cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel.

  5. With a piece of tape, mark where 1 1/2 times the height of dough would be on the outside of the bowl; place in warm room (75°F to 80°F) and let rise until it reaches tape mark (about 1 hour).

  6. Using oiled spatula or dough scraper, place dough on well-floured work surface; dust with flour; press down to form a rectangle; give dough 1 turn; round the edges; return it to the bowl; lightly spritz the top with cooking spray or oil; place in warm room (75°F to 80°F) and let rise to tape mark again (about 45 minutes).

Assembly:

  • whole wheat flour (for dusting)
  • cooking spray or oil
  1. Place baking stone on rack in lower third of oven; set cast-iron pan on oven floor; heat oven to 450°F.

  2. Place dough on lightly floured work surface; press down to slightly flatten it; shape into a loaf; place in 8 1/2" by 4 1/2" loaf pan, lightly greased with cooking spray or oil; place it in proof box or cover with oiled plastic wrap; let rise until its highest point is about 2" above the sides of the pan (about 45 minutes) (when pressed gently with a finger, the depression should fill in very slowly).

  3. Gently set loaf pan on baking stone; fill cast-iron pan with 1/2 cup ice cubes to create steam; shut oven door; reduce heat to 400°F; bake 25 minutes; rotate the pan; bake until bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean (about 20 to 25 minutes); remove from oven; unmold; place on wire rack top side up; cool to room temperature.

  4. To serve, slice bread; use for tea sandwiches or to accompany a cheese plate and sliced apples.

Author's Note: The average bread made with refined flour has about 66 percent hydration. This bread has almost 88 percent hydration because of the very absorbent bran. It's preferable to weigh the flour—16.5 ounces (466 grams)—as no two mills grind the wheat berries the same; different grinds would impact the volume significantly.