Week Twenty-Four: Breads With Vegetables
When searching for a recipe that involved spinach in bread, I found recipes that fell squarely into two camps: one that involved marbling spinach into a plain (often purchased pre-made and frozen) dough, and another that ended up making a strange, green-tinted bread with spinach mixed into the dough. Both camps used cheese to varying degrees, usually Parmesan. There might be garlic, if the chef-author had gotten a wild hare.
Both of these ideas were about as exciting as spinach-artichoke dip: probably perfect for a hangover, but otherwise bland and ubiquitously boring. I didn’t want either of those. I wanted a bread that was beautiful to look at, had a relatively mild but slightly-flavored dough, was light and crusty like a proper artisanal loaf should be, and that would make your (sober) tastebuds stand up and salute.
I found my inspiration in Chef Bo Friberg’s utterly amazing tome, The Professional Pastry Chef. Chef Friberg’s recipes have never let me down, from the finest pastries, to the heartiest breads; and his Basil Baguettes With Spinach Filling promised to be no exception: a spinach filling redolent with herbs and cheese (and not a mote of Parmesan in sight!), wrapped in a dough with a hint of basil and semolina flour. But something was just not right for me; the filling seemed to be too heavy on cheese, and too light on spinach. I didn’t want a calzone or stromboli, I wanted a Bread With Spinach.
Not to mention, this filling called for cream cheese originally, and I’m not really such a fan. Cream cheese is one of the few foods I don’t have much call for in my kitchen (cheesecake aside); I can always find ways of substituting thick yogurt, ricotta, or any other more interestingly-flavored dairy products. In this case, I substituted a bit of mascarpone, that delicate, buttery, soft cheese that I can always find a use for. (Try it on lentils; when it’s not there, my tongue can taste The Absence as though it were actually a flavor. It’s nothing short of addicting.)
To help play up the rich sweetness of the mascarpone, and to limit the stromboli-factor, I reduced the proportion of mozzarella in the filling, and increased the amount of spinach. There is a considerable amount of fresh basil in the filling, but it scents the bread more than it flavors it, and mainly enhances the spinach flavor (somehow). I didn’t include any garlic, not because I dislike it (I just love garlic), but because I didn’t want it to overpower any subtle flavors. I didn’t miss it one bit in the finished bread, but feel free to include it if you like (see note 4 below).
One secret weapon here is the use of freshly ground nutmeg. In any spinach dish, or cheese and onion combination, a pinch of nutmeg is that one little background note that will have people wondering why your food always tastes better than theirs. I highly suggest grating your own nutmeg, as the flavor disappears extremely quickly. Pre-ground nutmeg tastes flat and dusty to me, even when just purchased – who knows how long it’s been sitting on the shelf? (Do yourself and your kitchen a favor, and splurge on that $15 Microplane. You’ll use it far more often than you realize.)
In the end, you’ll wind up with one seriously good bread. It’s just a little bit more work than the average bread, but it’s really nothing difficult, no more than you’d do for dinner (assuming you ever chop your own herbs and onions); but the reward is absolutely worth it. The green freshness of spinach and basil sing, and just taste like late Spring, bright and herbaceous. There is a bit of richness from the cheese, soaking into the dough a little; but it’s by no means greasy or over-saturated. The crumb is soft and light, but the bread cuts easily into pretty spiralled slices.
You can eat this bread as-is, with no oil or butter needed for enhancement; but I love the idea of using this as the traditional top for French onion soup, even sans fromage, to show off the spiral pattern. I can almost taste that rich, caramelized onion-y broth soaking into that basil-scented, spinach filled crouton. I know it’s traditionally a cold-weather dish, but I might just crank up the air conditioner, wrap myself in blankets, and tuck in. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have already!
Spinach-Filled Basil Baguette
Adapted from Bo Friberg
Makes 1 large baguette
1 1/2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) semolina flour
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
3/4 cup warm water (105º to 115º F)
1/4 teaspoon honey
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 ounces (1/2 medium) yellow onion, chopped into a small dice
10 ounces (1 package) frozen chopped spinach (preferably thawed)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
6 tablespoons (loosely packed) fresh basil, chopped finely
3 ounces (about 1/3 cup) mascarpone
4 ounces grated mozzarella
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
7 ounces (about 1 2/3 cups) unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons (loosely packed) fresh basil, finely chopped
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flours, yeast, and thyme. Stir the water and honey together until the honey dissolves. Add to the flour mixture, and whisk until combined. Cover and let rest in a warm place for at least 45 minutes, but no more than 2 hours, while you make the filling.
2. To make the filling, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened and translucent. Do not brown. Add the spinach. If still frozen, cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook covered for 5 minutes, then stir and make sure spinach is thawed. If not thawed at this point, cover again for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, or until thawed. Uncover, and add the salt. Increase heat to medium-high, and cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until all liquid has evaporated and the mixture looks dry. Do not let the mixture brown. When dry, transfer the mixture to a bowl and let cool to room temperature. When cool, add the remaining ingredients, and stir to combine. Set aside until ready to use.
3. To make the final dough, add the salt to the starter in the mixer bowl. Whisk together until the salt is dissolved. Add all but a handful (about 1 ounce) of the bread flour, and mix with the dough hook at low speed until a rough dough forms. The dough may look dry at first. Scrape the bowl, then increase the speed to medium-low and knead for 6 to 7 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and forms a cohesive ball. If the dough does not clear the sides of the bowl, add the reserved flour by spoonfuls until the proper consistency is achieved. The dough should not be stiff.
4. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface, and flatten slightly. Top with the chopped basil, fold the dough over to contain the basil, and knead until evenly incorporated, about 3 to 4 minutes. Form the dough into a round ball with a skin stretching over the outside, and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, smooth side up. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
5. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a rolling pin to roll and using your hands to lift and stretch when necessary, shape the dough into a rectangle measuring 16 x 8 inches. If the dough begins to resist, cover and let rest for 5 minutes before trying again.
6. Spread the filling over the dough gently and evenly, using your fingers, and leaving about a 1/2 inch border on all sides. Fold the dough edge on the short sides over the filling, stretching the dough and pressing down into the filling, so that the edge of the rectangle has an even thickness. Starting with a long edge of the rectangle, roll the dough up jelly-roll-style, into a tight spiral, keeping the short edges lined up evenly. When you get to the end, pinch the seam firmly to seal it well, to prevent the filling from leaking out during baking.
7. Dust the work surface lightly with flour, and roll the baguette under your palms to make sure the thickness is even, and to elongate slightly. Transfer the baguette to the prepared baking sheet, laying it diagonally if necessary. Stretch the dough if needed to keep the length at least 16 to 18 inches long. Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap, or a damp towel, and let rise until 1 1/2 times bigger in volume. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 375º F, and place another baking sheet or oven-safe pan in the bottom of the oven. If you have a baking stone, heat it with the oven. If not, your baking sheet is fine.
8. Using a sharp serrated knife or clean razor blade, make three decisive slashes in the top of the loaf at a 45º angle, evenly spaced. Transfer the bread to the oven (or baking stone, if using). Immediately throw 4 or 5 ice cubes into the hot pan on the oven floor. Bake for 15 minutes, adding additional ice cubes as they melt.
9. After 15 minutes, remove the ice-cube-pan from the oven, and bake the baguette for an additional 15 to 25 minutes, or until deeply golden brown. Be sure not to under-bake the bread, as the filling needs to be fully heated through. Remove the bread to a wire rack to cool for a minimum of 1 hour before slicing, to allow the steam from the filling to dissipate. If sliced too early, the filling will not have set, and the bread will end up gummy and the attractive spiral pattern ruined.
1. When making the filling, in step 2, be sure the mixture has cooled enough so that the cheese will not melt when added. You can make this a day or two ahead, and keep chilled until ready to use.
2. If you prefer, you can use another dairy product in place of the mascarpone: sour cream, yogurt (Greek style, or strained regular), cream cheese (at room temperature), or even crème fraîche.
3. Do not try to mix the basil into the dough by using the mixer; it is too rough, and will turn the dough green and sticky.
4. If you’d like to include a garlic flavor with the filling, you can either use 1 or 2 minced cloves, sautéed along with the onions in step 2; or you can add 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder with the cheese and other seasonings.