Using a Willow Basket with Machine Mixing

Makes one loaf

This recipe is about baking bread using a willow basket, or ‘banneton’ in French. This style has a superior crust, having a crackling quality when bitten into. The bread responds better during baking, being able to expand in all directions in the oven. This gives a better proportioned open texture, or crumb. The appearance of a free-form loaf just looks more appetizing, and will really impress guests with your talents.

The recipe described needs one cup of active starter. In the morning add ½ cup water and ½ cup flour to a culture taken from the refrigerator (about ½ cup,). Let this mixture sit at room temperature until late afternoon, when it becomes frothy with active growth. This may not happen if the culture has been sitting dormant for too long in the refrigerator, thus requiring the procedure to be repeated until a high level of activity is achieved. Do this by dumping out about ⅔ of the mixture, and again adding ½ cup flour and ½ cup water and letting it sit overnight at room temperature. Do this again the next morning. If the culture has become dormant due to long storage in the refrigerator, this procedure may need repeating for a couple more days until the desired result is attained.

To create the bread dough, in a bread machine mix 1 cup of the active starter with 1 cup of water and 400 to 440 grams of a good quality flour (about 2¾ to 3 cups). The remaining active starter is returned to the refrigerator for storage. This mixture is somewhat stickier than is typical for bread dough due to its high water content. This dough can be a little too sticky to work easily by hand. For manual kneading, the dough can be more easily handled by using the higher amount of 440 grams of flour. To give a more chewy texture, substitute 30 grams (about ¼ cup) of the flour with high gluten flour. You can add about a tablespoon of wheat germ for flavor and appearance. Begin kneading the dough and then add 1 to 2 teaspoons of salt

The dough is mixed in the machine for about 20 minutes. After kneading is complete, the dough is removed from the machine and allowed to rise, shaped, and then allowed its second rising in a willow basket. For the first rising, the dough should increase about 2 to 3 fold in size. Use a willow basket for the second rising. Shape the dough by the following method. Holding the ball of dough, crease the ball and then fold the ball around the crease. This causes the dough to stretch, but not tear, along the opposite side of the crease. Repeat this a few times, creasing the dough along the same side thereby continuing to stretch the dough at the opposite side. Before forming each crease, rotate the ball about 90 degrees, so that the dough is stretched from all sides. The dough is then placed in the willow bowl liberally coated with flour with the sealed crease facing up. After placing the dough in the basket, it is allowed to complete its second rise, increasing in size about 3 fold.

Controlling the conditions for rising, or proofing, is where much of the art in sourdough baking lies. Optimal conditions depend mostly on the character of the starter culture, the temperature of proofing, and the type of flour used. Cool temperatures will increase the time needed for the dough to rise, but also improves the quality of the flavor and texture of the bread. Proof the dough at about 55 to 60°F. The first rising can occur overnight. Then shape the loaf in the morning and let the second rising in the willow basket occur during the day. The bread is then ready for baking that evening. For the second rising, cover the dough with a lint-free towel and place it in a large plastic bag. The bag prevents the dough from drying out over the extended time needed.

After the second rising is finished it is turned over onto a baking sheet, covered with semolina flour to prevent the dough from sticking. The dough will spread out due to the high water content Slash with a razor blade. When it is placed in the oven, the heat will cause the interior of the dough to expand while the surface creates a restrictive tension through dehydration. The combined effects will cause the loaf to round up, like blowing up a balloon. Adding steam to the oven is necessary to prevent the surface from dehydrating too fast, which otherwise would hinder expansion of this balloon.

The oven should be pre-heated to 500° F and fitted with a baking stone. Before placing the loaf in the oven, use a spray bottle to spray water directly onto the stone. To maintain high humidity, spray more water into the oven every 30 seconds, each time opening the oven door only a crack. After 5 minutes stop spraying the oven and reduce the heat to 400° F. By this time expansion of the loaf should begin to slow due to dehydration of its surface. Baking is complete after 30 minutes at the lower temperature. Immediately after removing the hot bread from the oven, mist it with water a last time to provide a crisp, but not overly hard crust.

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