Monday, April 12, 2010

Perhaps the Best Yet...Irish Apricot and Walnut Sourdough Braid

What do you do that makes you happy? This is a question that comes up early on in a book I just read. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. It is set in a cooking school and has wonderful characters and a lyrical use of language. It’s a fairly short book but, at least for me, had quite a few places that got me thinking about myself and my own life, even though the lives of most of the characters were quite different from mine.

What do you do that makes you happy? As a small child it was making pretend cakes in the sandbox and decorating them with leaves, twigs and flowers. At the beach my sand castles would be decorated, too, with shells and bark and perhaps a scrap paper flag on a coffee stirrer if I found those on the beach. I guess I like being creative and making things and embellishing them.

When I was older I loved to make my own paperdoll clothes and to bake cookies, and, later, real cakes with Hershey cocoa icing. More creativity, but more useful than sand.

When I was at school one of the things that made me happy was a day trip with a canoe on top of the car and friends to be with who also liked to travel down swollen creeks in the spring and lazy rivers in the summer, aiming our canoes through the rapids for a brief funhouse ride. Maybe I have a wild side!

Being in the kitchen when I can be creative almost always makes me happy. Sharing the results with Sweetie and others who love good food makes me happiest of all. The creation of food, raw, cooked, baked, and grilled, brings out the artist in me and there is something truly magical about creating food items specifically for those you love…some of your love seems to seep into the food as you prepare it…and they feel that when they eat it.

Drawing together to share food, a process as ancient as any, is an elemental and satisfying way to connect with those we love. If the TV is off it is an opportunity for conversation, sharing of daily trials and accomplishments, subtle instruction…and not so subtle sometimes…of the youngsters, appreciation for our blessings and, sometimes, a bit of flirting, too. If you can, try to sit down to eat with your loved one(s) at least once a day with no distractions other than the food. It is one secret to keeping the love and connections alive…and it just might be something you do to make yourself happy.

When I was in high school I was lucky enough to take a sculpture class taught at a nationally renowned museum in Washington DC. We worked with clay and I found the medium to be absolutely wonderful! Clay lets you be godlike, molding and pushing it around to suit yourself.

Recently Sweetie asked me why I don’t work in clay now since I liked it so much. My answer was “Now I have bread dough.” Bread dough is even more fun because it is alive with yeast. That means that you have to cooperate with the dough more than you do with clay…clay is much more submissive…but when you are done you can eat the bread and make another ‘sculpture’ another time!

This braid is truly a delectable bread to make and fun to eat. As long as you remember that walnuts can give the dough a red tone you can enjoy the flavor they add. Chopped dried apricots give nuggets of intense apricot flavor here and there as you eat the slices.

Sweetie thinks that this might be the best bread yet. Not sure about that but I know it makes the best toast!

The recipe is from a book I bought last spring in Ireland and then somehow left in with the travel books. When it came to light this week I was thrilled to find that it had this bread because I'd been wanting to make a bread with apricots in it. The cook book is called Soups and Breads - The Irish Kitchen by Nuala Cullen. There are wonderful soup recipes in the front and lots of bread recipes in the back. Here and there are charming line drawings, but no photos.

This was written as a recipe for a boule, but I felt like playing with dough and making a braid. Since I used my sourdough starter instead of dried active yeast, the liquid measurements were wrong at first, so I added extra milk...but didn't measure. Add additional milk/water and flour as needed to get a firm dough that is smooth and only barely tacky. Allow plenty of time for rising if you use starter.If you braid the strands loosely you can get a really pretty braid once it rises.

With packaged yeast the first rise should be about an hour and the second, after braiding, about a half hour. Do make this with active dry yeast if you don't have is really good and worth your time. I'm sending it over to Susan of Wild Yeast for the weekly Yeastspotting event.

Irish Apricot and Walnut Bread
Makes one loaf

75 g/3 oz/2/3 cup finely chopped dried apricots
75 g/3 oz/3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts
450 g/1 lb/4 cups strong white flour
75 g/3 oz/3/4 cup coarse brown flour (I used whole wheat)
1 tablespoon or one sachet instant dried yeast (I used 1 cup sourdough starter and adjusted the milk/water)
325 ml/12 fl oz/1 ½ cups mixed milk and water
1 tablespoon olive oil (I forgot to put this in, but it turned out fine)
1 teaspoon salt

If using dry yeast: In a large mixing bowl mix together the flours, apricots, nuts, salt and dried yeast.

Make a well in the center and pour in the milk and water, kneading and drawing in the flour from the sides until it is all incorporated. Knead for 2 minutes with a dough hook or 5-6 minutes by hand on a floured surface. Oil the mixing bowl, put in the dough, cover with plastic wrap/clingfilm and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

If using sourdough starter: In large mixing bowl (I used stand mixer bowl) put the sourdough starter and 1 ¼ cups mixed milk and water, slightly warmed. Stir or whisk to combine.

In another large bowl combine the flours, apricots, and walnuts. With dough hook in place and mixer on low speed, gradually add the dry mixture until the dough is soft and cleans the sides of the bowl. Knead with the machine for 3-4 minutes. If you prefer you can combine the wet and dry ingredients as described in the first paragraph and hand knead. With sourdough starter you might need to have a longer rising time...I did.

Knock the air out of the dough and knead briefly before turning out onto a floured surface. Shape as desired. I did a three strand braid. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. Again, this usually takes longer when you are only using sourdough starter, but the additional flavor that develops is well worth the wait. I also refrigerated my dough overnight before the first rise...even more flavor that way!

Bake in a preheated 375 degree F oven for about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and tap underneath. If a hollow sound results, the bread is cooked. If not, bake a little longer and test again. You could also shape the dough in two loaves and bake this in two 8 x 4 loaf pans.

Do try some of this is sublime.


  1. Fabulous love for bread post!
    Glorious bread.

  2. What a wonderful bread post. I can almost eat it off the page! I tried sending you an email, and the message came back as undeliverable :-(. Wander over to the Marin IJ food page today if you'd like to see what makes me happy...

  3. Bread as sculpture - I love it! And this loaf looks absolutely fabulous. Yum, yum, yum.

  4. Great-looking bread.
    I like the idea of sculpting bread. :)

  5. I can see the love in your writing today. Gorgeous post for a pretty gorgeous looking loaf.

  6. I love sourdough and I can imagine how good this tastes with apricot in it!!