How Soccer Practice Saved My Raisin Bread

I’ll admit it: I was in a free-form mood. I didn’t want to measure anything. My planning functions were temporarily suspended. I had a serious, savage craving for a raisin bread with a sweet stripe running through it, but didn’t want to work too hard at it. I also couldn’t decide if I wanted to make it in a loaf pan or in the Dutch oven like an overnight bread.

Continuing an impressive streak of distracted dithering, I then forgot to start the dough the night before (see “planning functions suspended,” above). In the morning, still throwing measurement caution to the winds, I threw the ingredients into a bowl and added extra yeast, expecting to make the bread that afternoon. Got as far as adding a layer of brown sugar and cinnamon that would stripe through the loaf, and formed it into a nice ball with every intention of baking it in the Dutch oven.

And then life in the form of soccer practice interceded. The one-hour second rise that I had anticipated stretched into two and then three hours as Henry raced around the covered Astroturf soccer field in Carlton, doing drills with Coach Karen and expressing his inner bad Messi self. Hot chocolate was necessary afterwards, and then a stop at the grocery store for dinner fixings.

When we got home, the nice round loaf was now a fat, flat, puffy mess with raisins poking out of its formerly taut surface and brown sugar oozing onto the countertop. It would no longer fit in the Dutch oven and was threatening to become an epic bread disaster.

But I improvised again, remembering the pizza stone that was tucked away in the bottom cabinet. Sprinkled with cornmeal to avoid stickage and preheated in the oven, it made a fine surface to flop a puffy, overproofed raisin dough onto, and 45 minutes later we had a fine, “rustic” (meaning rough and ugly) loaf. It sliced and tasted great. Thanks soccer practice. Thanks Coach Karen. I’ll be making raisin breads this way — without any planning or forethought — from now on.

A RUSTIC RAISIN BREAD

TIP #1: Ballparking bread ingredients is fun, if you keep a few proportional thoughts in mind. Honestly, does it matter if your bread turns out to be loaf-sized, plate-sized or Dutch-oven sized? It’s still bread, and deserves your love even if it’s smaller than usual, or ill-shaped. As long as you add just enough water to make a wet, spongy dough, the rest will work itself out.

STEP 1

Throw a combination of white bread flour (or AP flour) and whole-wheat flour into a large mixing bowl. Keep it at a ratio of two parts white to one part wheat, and around 3 to 4 cups total. Don’t bother measuring. For this exercise you’re playing the role of a country baker, preferably from a small, charming town in Italy or France. You have no use for uniformity or strict recipes in your gay, carefree, wine and cheese-filled life.

Add a couple of teaspoons worth of salt. Add a couple of teaspoons of yeast (okay, this I measured). Stir it around with your hand.

Now, with wooden spoon in hand, take the bowl to the sink and add warm water to the bowl, stirring the mass until all of the flour is wet and gathers into a mass that cleans the traces of flour off the sides of the bowl as you stir it around. Not wet enough to allow puddles of water to remain in the bowl (add more flour if this happens), not dry enough to flake off flour that isn’t absorbed into the mass (which means it needs a little more water). Don’t worry about it, it needn’t be precise. When it’s gathered together into a mass, wet your hand and squish the dough a few times to make sure everything is wet and mixed in. Clean off the wooden spoon. Cover the bowl with plastic.

Let this sit out on the counter in a warm place for 4-6 hours. It should double in size and make a spongy dough. Continue your gay, carefree Italian or French country existence during this time.

STEP 2

Make a filling by combining a couple of large handfuls of brown sugar, a few shakes of cinnamon and a sprinkle of nutmeg in another bowl. Mix it together with your hand. How much should you make? How sweet are you feeling? is the answer. Maybe a cup, maybe a little less, maybe we all need to brush up on being an Italian or French country dweller.

STEP 3

Scrape the wet, spongy dough onto a floured surface, sprinkle more flour (white bread flour or AP) onto it, and using your bench scraper, gather it up and knead it a few times. Sprinkle more flour if it sticks to the board or your hand. Smack it around and flatten it with the heel of your hand into a large rectangle. Sprinkle your brown sugar mixture over the entire rectangle, leaving a border edge of maybe a half-inch all around, and then sprinkle the whole thing with raisins.

Use the bench scraper again to fold the edges of the dough into the center, turn it over and gather it into a nice, tight ball. Sprinkle the top with flour and let it rest, seam side down, for an hour.

STEP 4

Go to soccer practice and run some errands and realize with horror that the hour that you left the dough to rest has stretched into 3 or 4 hours. Return to a large, lumpy mass of dough that no longer resembles a ball and will no longer fit in your Dutch oven.

STEP 5

Throw your head back and laugh in a rustic French or Italian way, because you’ve totally got this. Put your pizza stone onto a cookie sheet (or something similar to catch overflows of molten brown sugar), sprinkle it liberally with cornmeal, and preheat the oven to 450 with the stone inside.

Flop the mass of dough onto the hot pizza stone. (I used a pizza peel, also sprinkled with cornmeal, to achieve this). Bake for 45 minutes until the loaf turns dark brown and crusty. Remove to a cooling rack and let it rest a half-hour before slicing.

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