Fig and Fennel Sourdough (Plus a Little Family History)

I have childhood memories of my dad trying desperately to grow fig trees in our backyard here in the dry and hostile desert. Every couple of years he would plant a new tree, watch as it would grow a few seasons, shed some fruit, and then inevitably a cold winter would come along and take all that hard work like it never existed. Nowadays each winter he covers his fig trees with burlap and Christmas lights that are ever-on (yes, it’s true) to keep them warm. A true Italian Christmas tree, if you will. They seem to live a bit longer but they definitely do not thrive like they do in a temperate climate.

With all this reminiscing, and since I talk about my dad I wanted to give you a mental image of him and us back then, you’ll have to bear with me through the next photo…

Maurizio as a child with dad, brother and mom

You can see my dad in full Italian glory (don’t tell him I’m posting this) there back in the 80’s with his chain, pack of cigs and mustache. I’m the little chap in the lower-left covering my ears for who knows what reason, little brother in upper-right and mom to the right. I think we were out at the zoo in Italy, one of those zoos where you drive through in a rickey car. Man those were fun. Ok back to it.

Who can blame him for trying to grow this wonderful fruit, though? Figs are delicious. Each summer we would wait semi-patiently for these trees to bare fruit. Each trip to the backyard was first checked with an “are they ready yet?” as we passed by the tree. My dad would invariably say, “no, not yet” as he pinched them gently. When the wait was finally over everyone would simply snack on the sweet little fruit straight from the source, but sometimes we would use them in our cooking and sometimes we would even make jams & preserves. Fresh fig jam smothered over a slice of good, rustic bread: yes.

This bread recipe, originally inspired by Josey Baker’s in his fun and heartfelt book on baking, transports me back to those childhood days. I’ve used fennel in the past for my Golden Raisin + Fennel recipe but these two unlikely flavors somehow pair together very well, and remind me of my old house as a kid while fusing it with a very Italian flavor. A savory and sweet bread that isn’t too much of either, but just enough of each.

fennel seed and a cappuccino

chopped figs

The stress here is you try to find some really good quality figs. Not an easy task out here to be sure, but there are options online for organic, moist figs. If your figs are extremely dry fret not, just soak them in warm/hot water for 30 minutes or so until they are soft and pliable. Unfortunately figs are one of the most perishable fruits, I guess everything good truly is ephemeral.

And with all that, on to the fig and fennel sourdough.

Flour Selection

After baking this recipe several times I found myself gravitating towards using a very strong flour for the base. I chose King Arthur Bread Flour not only because it’s what I had on hand but also because it has very high protein content, around 14%. This strong flour helps to keep the figs in place and I’ve found it necessary to get the openness I was looking for.

I typically either have whole wheat or rye flour in my recipes to add some flavor complexity but also to boost fermentation and enzymatic activity. However, given that this recipe has a tendency to proof at a very fast pace I decided to omit all whole wheat (save for the whole wheat in my levain) and rye flour.

Prepare the 100% whole wheat stiff levain – 10:00am

Gather the following and mix together. This levain is a stiff variety at only 65% hydration. If you’re using to a liquid levain it may feel strange to you to almost knead the mixture. Alternatively you could up the hydration percentage to reach your normal liquid levain feel.

Weight Ingredient
100g Central Milling Hi-Pro Whole Wheat flour
50g Mature stiff starter
65g H2O @ room temperature

Keep your levain in a warm area and wait about 4-5 or so hours until it’s matured enough to leaven your dough.

wholewheat levain

If using a stiff levain you want to use after significant expansion has taken place but there is still a domed top (i.e. your “stiff ball” has not yet collapsed in the top-middle). If using a liquid levain you want bubbles on top and throughout and still a sweet smell to it, but almost tangy.

Autolyse – 1:00pm

We will do a two hour autolyse with this dough. I find the added extensibility gained by a relatively long autolyse helps when incorporating the chopped figs. This is mainly a personal preference, you could cut this down to 45 minutes or an hour if you’d like.

Ingredients:

Gather the following:

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
800g King Arthur Bread Flour 80%
150g Central Milling Type 70 Malted 15%
850g H2O @ 80ºF 85%
20g Fine sea salt 2%
150g Ripe levain 15%
5g Crushed Fennel Seed 0.5%
400g Dried Figs 40%

Perform the following for your autolyse:

  1. In a thick bowl add all the flour
  2. Add 800g of your water (the rest is reserved until later when we add in the levain & salt after the autolyse)
  3. Mix these ingredients by hand until all the dry bits are incorporated
  4. Cover with wrap and keep near your levain until mix time

Mix – 3:00pm

After our autolyse has finished break up the stiff levain on top of the dough, pour about half of the remaining warm water on top to help dissolve things.

I mixed for about 8 minutes, in the bowl, using a combination of the “pincer” method and stretch and folds. A “pincer” motion is bringing your index finger and thumb together as you work from one side of the dough to the other, when you reach the end we do a stretch up and fold over. Do this over and over until you feel the ingredients have been incorporated thoroughly, after, you can simply do stretch and folds until the dough starts to feel a little more extensible, a little stronger.

fennel seed and figs

After about 8 minutes of mixing, pour on your 20g salt and pincer through the dough to mix well. I mixed for an additional 2 minutes with salt added until the dough breaks up and then comes back together.

Final dough temperature: 80ºF
Ambient temperature: 80ºF

Bulk Fermentation – 3:10pm

Transfer your dough to a container to be used during bulk fermentation and let rest for the first 30 minutes.

As I mentioned at the beginning, if your figs are super dry you might want to soak them now, this will give them ample time to rehydrate before you fold them in after that second set of turns. Additionally, you can use your mortar & pestle to crush your fennel seed at this point into a nice fine powder.

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After the first 30 minutes has passed, perform your first set of stretch and folds (number 1 below).

  1. 3:40pm – Turn Set 1
  2. 4:10pm – Turn Set 2 – After this set gently fold in your drained & chopped figs and crushed fennel seed until well distributed
  3. 4:10 – 6:40pm – Rest in container untouched

Pre-shape – 6:40pm

Deciding when it is time to stop bulk fermentation and begin your preshape takes a bit of practice. Typically it’s around 4 hours but it can depend on many factors, such as final dough temperature, ambient temperature and percentage of levain used in the mix. The dough should look jiggly, risen by some percentage (around 30-40% is a good general rule) and it should hold its shape in the bowl. You’ll see a slightly domed top, especially where the dough meets the bowl’s sides. For me bulk was a little over 3 hours.

Be flexible here. If your dough looks like it’s moving faster than your normal baking schedule it might be wise to cut bulk as short as necessary.

fennel and fig sourdough

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Take the dough out of your bulk container and divide the mass into two halves. Pre-shape into two loosely shaped boules to rest for 25 minutes. Cover with inverted bowls or damp towels to keep the resting dough moist.

Shape + Proof – 7:05pm, Then in Fridge Immediately After

After your pre-shape rest, shape each dough mass into whatever shape you prefer, boule or batard. If you have any figs popping out try to gently poke them back into the dough. It’s not critical, but sometimes these figs at the outside will scorch a bit in the oven.

Using linen-lined baskets for this recipe is a good idea. Figs will be moist and can create a mess.

Pop them into your baskets, cover with wrap & toss them into the fridge immediately. This recipe moves fast and we want to get the dough’s temperature down as fast as possible. I almost like to think of the proof for this recipe just the same as a 100% whole wheat sourdough: fermentation moves at quite the clip.

fennel and fig sourdough folding

Even in the fridge you will need to keep an eye on this dough, it can over-proof on you very easily. Each time I have baked a “fruit” loaf I worry about the cold retard in the fridge. You might not be able to go a full 12 hours in the fridge (at 38ºF). See my note on this at the very end.

Score + Bake – around 7:00am

During this bake my loaves colored rather quickly on the outside so I dropped the temperature down in increments:

  1. 20 minutes @ 500ºF w/ steam
  2. 10 minutes @ 450ºF dry oven (remove Dutch oven lid or any steaming pans)
  3. 20 minutes @ 425ºF

Keep an eye on the bread as you get close to the end, it can color and burn on you rather quickly, thus my need for dropping the end of the bake to 425ºF.

Nowadays I almost always bake without a Dutch oven, but the choice is yours. If you’d like to learn how to bake directly on stones and generate steam, check out my previous entry on Baking With Steam in Your Home Oven. After baking these loaves, wait a couple hours before slicing into them to let everything set.

Conclusion

A very rich taste, but it does not push things too far. We find ourselves eating this bread very simply, no toppings save for a pad of good quality salted butter or a few slices of salted prosciutto. It is not too sweet, but the salty-sweet combination is just divine. Somewhat counterintuitively this bread is of a very rustic nature. You’d think with the tiny chopped figs and delicate fennel seed you’d have a dainty loaf, but the end result is more of a hearty loaf.

But before we get to the success, let’s look at an outtake. I mentioned previously to watch your dough as this recipe, with those sweet and starchy figs, can quickly overproof. Here’s a shot of one of my loaves that unfortunately went a bit too far. It still baked up ok, but the crumb was not as open as I’d like and overall a more compact loaf with less-than-stellar rise.

Overpriced dough (ouch!)

Now that’s fermentation. Watch this dough, even in the fridge! Alternatively you could let proof at room temperature for a few hours and just bake it straightaway sans the cold retard.

Crust

Crackly. Thin. Colorful. All adjectives I’d used to describe the crust. You almost wouldn’t know of the wonderful fruit inside this bread except for the few figs that pop out to let you know there is something else going on inside. The thin crust can easily be torn and you’ll find yourself doing just that to get another piece that may have a hidden fig inside.

the perfect loaf fig and fennel sourdough crust

Crumb

A heavy loaf in the hand, and rightly so with around 400g of figs. The interior stays moist for days and is very tender. If I had to place an adjective on the crumb to sum it up: delectable. As you slice you’ll dig into caverns of figs, sometimes yanking them out of their hiding spot and sometimes slicing right though them. A very rustic loaf!

the perfect loaf fig and fennel sourdough

Taste

The aroma of fennel at each slice hits you first, but is only barely noticeable when taking a bite. I like it this way. When you snag a fig it’s a surprise as the bread isn’t completely laden with them to overpower things. A perfect balance of the two.

the perfect loaf fig and fennel sourdough taste

These two loaves found their way over to my parent’s place for lunch. As we ate the bread straight from the cutting board I looked outside to see my dad’s latest fig tree with not one but a cluster of figs coming into season. It seems that he has finally arrived on that perfect maintenance schedule for his tree, and I found myself walking outside to gently pinch them to see if they were ready… no, not yet.

mixing bowl and bread lame

Buon appetito!




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