Weekend baking: Raisin spice bread

Raisin Bread

I have been craving raisin bread for weeks now. I finally got my act together and bought some raisins, and now I kick myself for waiting so long. This bread is moist, luscious, and just sweet enough to make a dreary morning bearable. And the best part? It’s probably the easiest bread I’ve made to date, despite its multiple steps and stages. You don’t need a mixer; in fact, I think it’s easier to make by hand. And it takes a relatively small time commitment, spread over two days.

My recipe is adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads, which is a book I haven’t really gotten into until now. The mash, soaker, biga, and bread stages all seem so complicated, but really, I think I’ve just been intimidated by the “difficulty” of making whole grain bread. This recipe proved me wrong, and I hope it will be just as easy for you.

Whole Wheat Raisin Spice Bread

Makes 1 large loaf.

Day 1. (~20 minutes, max.)

Soaker:

  • 1-1/3 c. (6 oz.) whole wheat flour. I used whole wheat durum, which needed a bit more water but worked perfectly for this recipe.
  • 3/8 t. salt
  • 3/4 c. buttermilk. Peter Reinhart says milk, soy milk, or rice milk are good substitutes.
  • 1 c. (6 oz.) raisins. Substitute other dried fruit if you like.

Biga.

  • 1-1/3 c. (6 oz.) whole wheat flour. Again, I used whole wheat durum flour here.
  • 1/4 t. instant yeast. You can use 1/3 t. active dry yeast instead.
  • 6 T. buttermilk. Again, milk, soy milk, or rice milk will work.
  • 1/4 c. safflower oil. Melted butter or vegetable oil will work as well.
  • 1 large egg, slightly beaten

To make the soaker, mix all ingredients except the raisins together in a bowl, until the ingredients come together in a ball. Add the raisins, then knead together in the bowl with wet hands until they are distributed evenly throughout the mix.

To make the biga, mix all the ingredients together until they form a ball of dough. Knead for a couple of minutes in the bowl with wet hands. The dough should feel tacky; if it doesn’t, add a little bit of water and knead a bit more. If it does, let rest for 5 minutes, and then knead it (again with wet hands) for one more minute.

Cover both the soaker and the biga with plastic wrap (shower caps work well, and are reusable). Leave the soaker out overnight, and put the biga in the fridge.

If you can’t make the final dough within 24 hours, put the soaker in the fridge as well. They can be left alone for a couple of days.

Day 2. (~4 hours, mostly inactive)

Two hours before you want to start making the bread, remove both the biga and the soaker from the fridge.

Final dough:

  • Soaker
  • Biga
  • 7 T. whole wheat (durum) flour
  • 5/8 t. salt
  • 2-1/4 t. instant yeast, or just under 3 t. active dry yeast
  • 1-1/2 t. agave nectar (or honey)
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground ginger
  • pinch nutmeg
  • 1/2 c. raw sunflower seeds, shelled

Chop the biga and soaker into small pieces (~12 pieces each). Sprinkle a bit of the 7 T. flour over the pieces, so they don’t stick together. Throw the pieces into a big bowl, along with the flour, salt, yeast, agave nectar, and spices. Knead with wet hands until the whole mess converges into a fairly even ball of dough. It should be soft and somewhat sticky. If it isn’t, add a bit more water. If the dough is really sticky, sprinkle a bit more flour over the dough and knead it in.

Sprinkle some flour over your work surface, and throw the dough onto it (don’t be shy — half the fun of making bread involves throwing it around a bit). Knead the dough — by hand — for a few minutes, using only the amount of flour you need to keep it from sticking to your tabletop. The dough should feel soft and tacky, but shouldn’t be sticky. Ok, truth be told, my bread was a bit sticky, but I added a bit more flour, kneaded a bit more, and all was well. Let rest for 5 minutes, knead 1 minute more, and then put the ball of dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl (use vegetable, canola, or safflower oil for best results). Cover with plastic wrap, and then go putter about the house for 45-60 minutes, or until it is ~1-1/2 times its original size.

When the dough has finally risen (or when you get so impatient that you can’t bear to leave it alone), take the ball of dough out of the bowl, shape it into something resembling an oval, and lay it on some parchment paper. If you have a peel (like a giant bread spatula, which you see in the picture above), that’s all you need. If not, put it on a baking sheet. Cover with a non-terry cloth towel (fuzz sucks) and let sit for another 45-60 minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F (203 degrees C).

Once your oven is at temperature, and your dough looks like it’s done something, slash it decoratively, by dipping the sharpest knife you have into cold water and pretending you know what you’re doing. Don’t hesitate, or your slashes will look like mortal wounds. Put some water into a bowl, and set aside. Finally, slide the loaf into the oven. Before you shut the oven door, pour the bowl of water onto the oven floor. Shut the door, turn the oven down to 325 degrees F (163 degrees C), and let it bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, turn the loaf 180 degrees (or just forget about it) and leave it another 20 minutes or so, until the crust is a golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when you tap its underside. Place the loaf on a cooling rack.

Let the poor loaf cool down, for at least an hour. I know, waiting sucks, but I promise — it’s worth every minute.

I’m not quite done yet. I promised you some sort of “sustainable food experience,” as if that’s something I can provide. So I offer you instead an explanation of how I chose my ingredients and a report on how inadequate I am as a person who thinks global warming is something we should be concerned about.

First, the raisins. You all know I live in Connecticut. Where raisins are certainly a bit challenging to find locally. But in this case, there is actually an explanation for my actions. I deliberated quite a bit over whether I could justify the distance they have traveled to my local Trader Joe’s. The thing is, they’re made near my hometown, in Fresno County, CA, and I think I can’t help but support any organic movement that might actually clean up the air near where I lived, and where a large portion of my family still resides. Fresno County produces a large portion of the produce shipped out of California. Sun-Maid Raisins is there, among other name brand agro-industrial giants, and I remember touring their vineyards and factories in elementary school. I also remember watching a good portion of my elementary school classmates clutch their inhalers during recess. The pesticides and herbicides used in farm production in my hometown are at least partially responsible for the fact that my classmates couldn’t breathe. So if I can support any move away from that massive pile of pollution that ends up in Fresno’s air (and anyone else’s, for that matter), I’ll do it.

As for the flour? It’s from Canada. King Arthur, which is fairly local for me, doesn’t sell whole wheat in bulk. So instead, I support a local grocery store, which sells 20 lb. bags of the Canadian stuff. I’d prefer organic and local, but we bake all our own bread here, and can’t justify all the expense and packaging. We tried to find a bulk source of King Arthur whole wheat flour, but have thus far been unsuccessful. So it’s one compromise we make, and I think it’s one I can live with for now.

The remaining ingredients are pantry staples. When I can, I replace them with local and/or organic equivalents. The agave nectar is organic, the buttermilk is local and organic (from Thyme & Season), and the spices are organic. Slowly, throughout the course of this year, I hope to be able to give you advice on suppliers, brands, and prices, but hey, we all have to start somewhere…

For now, enjoy the bread.

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4 Comments

Filed under bread, raisins

4 responses to “Weekend baking: Raisin spice bread

  1. I’ve never heard of a bread that uses buttermilk in the biga – how cool. This sounds so good. Do you like Reinhart’s book? I’ve been meaning to buy a good bread book for ages and I’m still undecided…

  2. liz

    I do like Reinhart’s books. He’s really good about giving detailed directions, which helps when you’re first learning to bake, and I like his stories. I have to admit, though, that the whole grain one is just starting to grow on me. I’m not sure I’d recommend that one as a first bread book. If you want a good one to start out with, I’d try The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I’ve been making stuff out of that book for ages, and have been impressed by all of it. My favorite’s his Pain a l’Ancienne, which I’ll probably post on one day soon…

    Other than that, I’d recommend Local Breads, by Daniel Leader. It’s probably more of a second book, since he uses a lot of different types of starters, but it’s well written and kind of exciting (if beautiful bread is your thing, anyway!)

  3. liz

    PS — Thanks for leaving my first comment! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Oatmeal struan « threeForks

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