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 – 8:00am

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 – 12:00pm

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 – 1:00pm

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 – 1:10pm

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

Pre-shape – 4:10pm

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 bit less than 4 hours, around 3:45.

Be flexible here. If your dough looks like it’s moving faster than your normal baking schedule it might be wise to cut bulk short by 15-30 minutes.

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 – 4:35pm, 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), I only made 10 hours and that was cutting it close. See my note on this at the very end.

Score + Bake – around 10:50am

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!

 

Recipe and method submitted to YeastSpotting.

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  • Maree

    Gee I love your work! Beautiful story, beautiful bread! How do you keep that starter jar so clean? 🙂

    • Thank you!

      It’s easier to keep the jar clean when you have a stiff starter. Each feeding you can almost pull the entire thing out with little left on the sides!

  • Jay Weston

    Amazing post! Hadn’t been here in a little while and am so impressed by everything – the photography, story telling, writing, the end bread results, the site design. Can imagine how long it took you to set up and arrange all those shots. Really enjoyed the whole experience!! So good! Congrats!

    • Taking these photos is half the fun for me 🙂 Thanks for all the kind words, hope to hear from you again soon!

  • margie

    Ditto the comments! Great post Maurizio.

  • margie

    As much as I love my baking bowl, a lovely one like yours, I think I will ferment in my calibrated container for awhile, until I get the “feel” for fermentation that you have. Thanks for the tips! Love the personal touches.

    • My Heath Ceramics bowl is one of my favorite things to make bread in! But yes, using a ruled container will definitely help quantify your bulk a bit easier. If I’m doing a recipe that’s completely unknown I’ll typically use my ruled Cambro. You’re welcome, thanks Margie!

  • Noah

    Hi Maurizio,
    Beautiful fig loaves!! I wish I could taste those. I have a few questions for you:
    1. Why didn’t you do any slap and fold?
    2. Why are you using a stiff levain now?
    3. Are you baking without the Dutch oven just to bake multiple loaves at once or do you get a better oven spring this way?
    –I baked my best loaves yet by following your “less levain” recipe. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog!

    • Noah – thanks! Answers below:

      1. I actually have done this recipe both ways, slap/fold and just turns in the bowl. Both work just fine, I didn’t s/f this time because I was using so much bread flour, which is incredibly strong. You can feel the gluten strengthen up very fast in the bowl. Either way works, though!

      2. I’ve really just been experimenting with a stiff levain these days, and I like the maintenance schedule it provides (it can go longer between feedings). There are some other benefits as well, and I’ll get into those in a post I’ve been working on for a while (hopefully it’ll be out soon!).

      3. I’m baking without the Dutch oven so I can fit larger loaves in my oven. I started to reach the capacity of my DO and needed to find a way to bake larger and more loaves at a time. I have a post here at the site that shows my steaming method if you haven’t seen it yet.

      Glad you like my “less levain” recipe! It’s my go-to 🙂 Thanks for the kind words about my site!

      • Susan

        Hi Maurizio,
        Can you tell me where I can get some instructions on how to slap and fold, and turns in the bowl?
        What does stiff levain mean? I need some basic knowledge and instruction (pictures or videos) on the
        Techniques you have used. I hope you will be able to help me and guide me in the right direction.
        I have made a few loaves of sour dough bread but could never achieve the big holes like your bread.
        Not only are the holes big but there are so many of them. Incredible.
        Also my bread was not sour enough. Could it because my starter is new/fresh, only a few weeks old.
        Waiting eagerly for your reply.
        Thank you,
        Susan

        • Susan – since you are just beginning I might suggest to avoid doing any slap/fold to start. Just focus on developing dough strength in the bowl during bulk fermentation through “stretch and folds”. I would highly recommend you pickup Ken Forkish’s book Flour Water Salt Yeast. It’s a GREAT introduction to baking sourdough. There are many pictures throughout that explain stretch/fold and other techniques (I am working on videos and pictures for these but do not yet have them posted). That book will be an excellent compliment to my site.

          You can make your bread more sour by using more levain in your bread when you mix. I typically use around 20% but you could up this to 25%. Also, instead of this you could leave your dough longer in the refrigerator. For example, instead of proofing in the fridge for 12 hours overnight, you could extend this to 20 hours and bake closer to the evening.

          I hope that helps!

          • Susan

            Hi Maurizio,
            Thank you for your recommendation, I have just bought the book.
            I cannot wait for your videos and pictures on techniques. This is what all
            new-comers to bread-making need desperately, especially the videos.
            Instead of writing a book, what don’t you produce a CD (or even two) on
            “The techniques for sour dough bread-making”. It would be a hit as we can all learn from watching the videos. Better than just photographs. I am sure you have already considered this.
            I will certainly leave my dough longer in the fridge, in the hope that they will turn a little more sour.
            Thanks again for all you advice and help.
            Susan

            • You’re very welcome. I’ve definitely given thought to making a few baking videos and hopefully those will come here sometime soon 🙂

  • SoniaF

    Thank you for this beautiful post! I love the family stories and the Italian heritage that you incorporate into this and other posts here and on Instagram. Two questions: 1) can you use fresh ripe figs? The markets here in California are filled with ripe Black Mission Figs right now, but yours looked dry. I’m wondering if these will be too moist? 2) What’s the exact quantity of figs you used in the recipe? I didn’t see it in the ingredients list, but in the crumb comments at the end, you say “around 400g”. Thanks again for all the effort you put in to your blog and for sharing — we beginners really appreciate it!

    • Sonia thanks for the kind words! My Italian heritage has shaped me into who I am today, only right I share a bit of that!

      1. I think yo could use fresh figs but I’d be worried they might break apart very easily in the dough. As you know the interior can be extremely moist. I’d almost suggest just baking a normal country sourdough recipe and then slicing them up for a topping 🙂

      2. I can’t believe I didn’t add the figs to my recipe up there! I fixed it. I used about 400g of dried figs (weighed after removing their little stem).

      You’re welcome, glad you’re finding the site helpful! Let me know if you do venture into baking with fresh figs, I’d love to know the outcome.

      • SoniaF

        Hi Maurizio, After reading your comments and eating a few more ripe figs (they’re so good right now!), I decided not to try it with fresh figs. I also had a good discussion with a farmer from Knoll Farms at the SF Ferry Building this weekend and he agreed the ripe figs would break apart too much in the dough. He was very excited when I told him about the bread recipe I wanted to try and I purchased some good dry figs from him, so I’m almost ready to give it a try. I do have another question as I gather the ingredients — what’s the purpose of the type 70 malted flour and is there any substitute? Happy to order it and give it a try, but I’m curious how you decided on the flour mix and if you have any idea what would happen if I went with all bread flour. Appreciate any guidance you can offer.

        BTW, I did make regular sourdough this weekend and topped with fresh figs and proscuitto — delicious!! 🙂

        • I use the T70 flour to add a little extra fermentative and enzymatic activity to my dough, to get a nice caramelized crust. You can think of T70 as “almost whole wheat”, so you get a little of the benefits of whole wheat (taste, fermentation boost) without pushing things too far. You can safely omit the T70, or you could use a smaller portion of 100% whole wheat, like 5-10% (even rye flour would be good here). But yes, all bread flour would work just fine.

          Great, I’m glad the regular recipe works so well! Figs and prosciutto, perfect! Let me know how this one turns out — happy baking Sonia!

  • Cecilia, thank you so much I appreciate that! I’m glad my instructions here have helped. Like you I’m hooked on this bread, I’ve made it many times now and it’s always a winner. Thanks for the comments and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  • Susan

    Hi, your bread is simply breath- taking bot in texture and colour. I am green with envy.
    I am a novice and am dying to try baking your bread. How do you achieve such great big air holes.
    They are wonderful,
    Susan

    • Thanks, Susan! Larger open areas in your sourdough are created through several things: sufficient strength in the dough (achieved through mixing and stretch and folds, strong fermentation in your starter, a full bulk fermentation step and a full proof. It definitely takes practice, but it’s something everyone can achieve. At first I would focus more on being observant with your sourdough — watch how the dough looks and feels at each step through the process. Take notes. After baking for several years now I’ve determined the most important piece of advice I can give is to be observant.

  • Thank you, Donna!

  • Dodger80

    I have some sourdough starter that I’ve nursed along for years. I am now back into baking breads and just wanted some clarification.
    Q: When you refer to “stiff starter”, that would be what I call a “fed” starter; fortified 4-5 hours before with fresh water and flour?
    Q: Should I keep my starter fed with all-purpose flour and not home milled red hard wheat (100% unsifted)? I prefer my milled hard wheat, but wondered if I will see a difference over time.
    Thank you for your thorough and thoroughly entertaining blogs. You’ve lured me back into baking once again!
    Roger the Dodger
    Southampton, New York

    • What I mean by “stiff” is around 65% hydration (e.g. 65g h20 to 100g flour).

      You can feed your starter fresh milled flour if you’d like, I do from time-to-time, but I like the more mellow fermentation aged flour brings. I find that feeding your starter with fresh flour really amps up fermentation and forces me to feed more often. There was a period of time I fed my starter with only fresh milled flour and everything was just fine — up to you!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the site and I feel great that I brought you back into baking awesome sourdough at home! Happy baking 🙂

  • Dodger80

    I don’t have “Malted Flour”. But I do have bakers malt from King Arthur in my pantry. How much malt would I add to a cup or xxx ounces or grams of flour? Would it vary if I was using all home milled grains? BTW…Your photos are exceptional. I want to lick my monitor every time I scroll down the page. Thanks for the thrill!! At my age, you don’t pass on getting a good lick now and again! 🙂

    • Ha ha, thanks I appreciate that!

      Sure, their malt will work well (I’m assuming it’s diastatic malt). I like to use around 1% in my final dough mix. If you use too much your dough will become slightly gummy in texture. I use the same amount when using fresh milled flour. I don’t add any malt when I know the flour I’m using already has it (most “bread” flours already have it included).

      Let me know how it works out!

  • Anina Marcus

    just made your recipe.. how can I show you a picture of the breads… they came out scrumptious

    • Excellent! I’d love to see, send me an email: maurizio (at) theperfectloaf.com

  • mitsuko sato

    Maurizio, kobbanwa! It’s been awhile since I baked a good loaf of sourdough. Life kept getting in the way. This weekend I tackled some new recipes- such as this. Fabulous, really really enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it and sharing memories with us. I can just picture your Italian Christmas tree in the yard! Haha and the 80s, man! Gotta love the 80s. My father had a similar look. And carried a little boombox with him in half the pics 😂

    I had a question about something and perhaps you can help. Today I also attempted a roasted garlic and rosemary loaf. Something went wrong…Terribly wrong. Do you think any of your speciality ingredient formulas could easily be adapted to those add ins? I am quite happy with the ones you have. But my husband has been asking for the rosemary garlic. I feel so bad my fig loaf turned out beautifully. Where as the rosemary garlic did not. So I’m going to attempt a redemption loaf tomorrow.

    Anyway, thank you again! And (a very belated) congratulations on the saveur award are in order! That is awesome and well deserved! 🍻 🎉

    • Yes, sometimes life interrupts our baking sessions but sometimes we just have to push back 🙂 The 80’s were pretty amazing, I have to say. I love the idea of carrying around a little boombox, maybe we need to bring that back!

      I’m not sure why you had trouble with the garlic / rosemary loaf. I have not baked with garlic in my sourdough but I don’t see why it should present a problem. I’d treat it like any of these “ingredient” loaves and mix in some percentage and tweak up/down from there. Perhaps there was too much water in the dough? I’m late to reply to this comment so I hope you’ve figured out the issue! Garlic and rosemary naturally go so well together I can just imaging how amazing that loaf would taste.

      Thanks so much for the kind words, I really appreciate it! Happy baking 🙂