Confessions of a Bread Lover: Sunflower Seed Bread
Some people are Meat People. Others are Chocolate People. Yet others are less interested in food, but have a Passion for Whiskey. Or for Wine. Now, I like all these things, but really, my desert island food group – the one thing I’d be hard pressed to live without – is bread. It’s a long-standing love affair and is something that has guided my travels (see also, why I haven’t been to Asia yet, but have been to France and Italy twice and nearly never came back from Germany), been a litmus test for every place I’ve lived (is there a good bakery nearby?), and been the one thing I’ve always wanted to craft perfectly in my own kitchen. It’s alchemical, really, to take a few really humble ingredients (flour, yeast, water, salt) and make something that can be so simple, yet totally sublime. It gives me the same sense of wonder that I have when I watch a print emerge from a blank sheet of paper as I swirl it around in developer. Creating something wonderful from practically nothing.
In high school I worked a couple of jobs. A few afternoons a week I practiced my alphabet while filing at my mom’s office. But Saturdays I got up really early and went to serve breakfast and lunch at a bakery and cafe in my home town. Now, I earned good money filing, but if I could have just worked at the bakery (and I mean actually *in* the bakery – baking) every day, I might have quit school.
Alas, I wasn’t eighteen yet and there was some law blah blah blah. Luckily, however, I had known Lorenzo, the baker, for a long while and we had hit it off, so a few times both while I was working for him and afterward, he showed me the ropes a little bit – how to keep your sourdough alive, why steam is important to have in the oven, how to recognize gluten development and how to make a cloak out of it. Maybe the knowledge I gained from him and those hours in the steamy, floury bakery haven’t changed my everyday that much, but I think I remember everything he ever told me about bread.
Last summer, Dan and I spent an evening with friends who were embarking on a month-long adventure in Berlin. They wanted to know what to do, where to go, what to see. My very first (and perhaps most insistent) suggestion was, perhaps, a little odd. All I could think about was my traditional breakfast the years I was in Germany: A couple cups of extraordinarily strong coffee and a slice or two of Sonnenblumenkernbrot (or Sunflower Seed Bread for you non-German-speakers) slathered with butter and sometimes topped with some sharp cheese.
Now, the things you need to know about Sunflower Seed Bread are not many, but they are important.
One: it comes in many varieties, the one of which I enjoy the most is dense, crumbly and has more seeds relative to bread than you would think possible. It has almost a sour taste and is by far the cheapest variation on the theme. A reasonable approximation of this bread is sold in the States by health and whole food stores under the label of Fitness Bread. (Stupid name.) The other variety you should know about is much breadier and generally comes with a thick crust of sunflower seeds. But there are also seeds baked in, which almost disappear into the bread, occasionally surprising you as you bite down. This is the kind of bread you buy not at the supermarket, but at a respectable bakery or at an Öko-bakery at an Öko-market.
Two: It’s the best bread in the world. As breakfast. As a sandwich. As a midnight snack. With soup. Hell, I even think it would make delicious french toast and might make an interesting hippy-ish bread pudding. (The only possible exception I can think of was the Twelve Grain we sold at Lorenzo’s (or was it seven? I’m getting old). That’s what I always took home as my free loaf of the week.)
The good news is that now I can experiment with those ideas because Sunflower Seed Bread is no longer a totally rare commodity! As you may have heard, I keep blathering on about the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day experience. Until very recently, I had only stuck to the Basic Recipe, which makes a gorgeous, crusty, custardy French loaf. But then I went to the Harvest Co-op and bought some novel flours and a giant tub of sunflower seeds and decided to get creative.
What resulted from this first experiment was not a totally accurate replica of the German bread ideal, but it was damn good. Hearty and seedy and crusty with an almost malty flavor from the barley flour and with those surprising pops of seeds that had melted into the interior. And the crust of toasty seeds was perfect, throwing seeds all over the kitchen (just as it’s supposed to) whenever I sliced a piece. Delicious.
To be sure I wasn’t imagining how good it was, I shared half the loaf with that dear friend I had introduced to the ways of the Sunflower Seed Bread. She seemed to rather enjoy it. So much so that she devoured half of the half-loaf with lunch.
With no further ado, here’s the recipe I used. You should fully expect updates to this recipe as I tweak and try out new variations. Especially since I’m off very soon to do some field research (ostensibly about civic engagement in a Berlin neighborhood, but you know it’s really all about the bread) and will hopefully come back with a stack of recipes and a renewed memory of the taste of this most perfect of breads.
No-Knead Sunflower Seed Bread
- 3 1/2 c warm water (about 100° – basically a little warmer than body temperature)
- 3 c unbleached all purpose flour
- 2 c whole wheat flour
- 1 1/2 c barley flour
- 3/4 c raw sunflower seeds, more for rolling the loaf
- 1 1/2 T granulated dry active yeast
- 1 1/2 T kosher salt
- cornmeal for your baking surface
**If you’re not familiar with the 5 Minutes a Day approach, you’ll need a LARGE (a gallon at least) container with a lid. I use a gallon ice cream tub with a hole poked in the lid (you don’t want the lid to be airtight or it’ll explode with the expanding gases as the dough rises). You’ll also need enough fridge space to store this container until you use all the dough. You should also know that this recipe will make 3-4 medium sized (about a pound) loaves. But that won’t be a problem. Oh, and once you’ve tried this approach, it WILL change your everyday life. If you’re a Bread Person, at least.
- In your storage tub, combine the warm water, yeast, and salt. Swirl or stir gently to dissolve the yeast.
- Add the flours and sunflower seeds all at once.
- Stir with a spoon until the dough begins to come together. Then get your hands in there and mix until all the liquid is incorporated and there are patches of dry flour left over.
- Put the lid on the container (you may not want to seal it yet – and remember – don’t use an airtight lid!) and let the dough rise at room temperature for three hours or so. At this point it should have not quite doubled in size. (I found this dough didn’t rise as much as others, but it has an amazing oven lift.) Stick it in the fridge over night.
- About an hour before you want to eat the bread, preheat the oven to 450 and place a pan of water on the bottom shelf of the oven.
- Now prepare your baking surface. You can use a pizza stone (which you should preheat with the oven), but I don’t have one, so I’ve been using a normal half-sheet pan. To use a normal half-sheet pan, you need to spread a thin layer of cornmeal or semolina on the pan roughly in the shape and size of your loaf. This will keep it from sticking.
- Then pull out a chunk of dough about the size of a softball (or however big you want it to be) and shape the loaf: what you want to do is create a “gluten cloak”. To do this you need to sort of flatten (not squish) your dough into a disc and then roll the edges toward the bottom. You’ll be able to see the strands of gluten forming and creating almost a network across the top of the loaf. I like an oblong loaf shape for this bread, but it really doesn’t much matter what shape you give it. (*See photo below)
- Once you’ve shaped the loaf, roll the top and sides of it in the extra sunflower seeds until the loaf is pretty generously coated. Place it on top of the cornmeal on your baking sheet and make sure the bottom is pretty thoroughly coated in the cornmeal. Trust me: you do NOT want your bread sticking. Then slash the loaf: take a sharp knife and cut a slash about 3/4″ right down the middle of the loaf (lengthwise). This will give it room to rise and will make it look awfully pretty. Let the bread rest at room temperature for 20 minutes while the oven pre-heats.
- Bake it for 30 minutes. It should be evenly browned (my oven is really small and heats unevenly, so I rotate the loaf halfway through to ensure even browning) and when it’s done it will sound hollow if you tap on the bottom of the loaf. (You *may* need an additional 5 or so minutes and definitely more if you bake a considerably larger loaf.) Let it cool for a few minutes before you tear into it. It’ll give it time to compose itself and will lessen the likelihood that you’ll burn the dickens out of your mouth. (Not that it wouldn’t have been worth it.)