Updated: Jan 31, 2019
‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…’ and boy do I love Christmas! Always have done, always will. It really is ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. I’ve inherited this love of the festive season from my mother – they say Christmas is for the children, but when I see my mum brought to tears by the sight of a well decorated Christmas tree, I really have to believe it’s for her.
Now we all know the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas are a feast for the senses, but my family was after a feast for its stomach too! When it came to the all-important Christmas dinner, we were not traditionalists, I'm not sure we ever had a turkey? We had goose once, one of our own in fact. Whilst it was ceremoniously presented in the middle of the table, there was an awkward silence as we all gazed out of the window to the orchard where our family of geese had diminished by one. We filled up on roast potatoes and sprouts…and my sister became a vegetarian there and then.
There were triumphs too though; whole dressed salmon, roast pheasant, stuffed lamb loin, beef Wellington and glazed ham to name but a few. These were just the mains amongst a plethora of other courses; starter one, starter two, fish course, palate cleanser, cheese, dessert…again the list goes on. We’d start eating around 3pm and would finish somewhere around 7pm, which probably meant we hit the cheese course about 3 hours into the meal. Now a funny thing happens when a cheese board is brought to the table and it might be what really separates men from women. Most of the women I know will say, ‘not for me thank you, I’m saving room for dessert.’, whereas men will say ‘shall we open a nice bottle of red with this?’, and then commence to sample their way around the whole board. And it’s this cheese tasting journey that requires a good bread vehicle – no sliced white, no anaemic rolls or floury baps, but something rich and wholesome with a caramelised crust and a chewy but tender crumb – Sourdough. So that’s why baking a good Christmas loaf has become an important tradition in my house and this year I’ve settled on Fig & Walnut. It’s got all the hallmarks of a regular sourdough loaf, but with the added nutty bite of walnuts and pockets of toffee sweetness from the dried figs - YUM! I’m going to be eating mine with goats cheese and honey, but you could get yourself some Stilton or a salty Roquefort and have yourself a ‘blue…blue, blue, blue Christmas’!
40g Sourdough Starter
60g Strong White Bread Flour
20g Rye Flour
100g Sourdough Starter (Maintain the remaining amount as your starter for next time)
270g Strong White Bread Flour
50g Wholemeal Flour
100g Walnut Pieces
75g Soft Dried Figs (Cut in to quarters or eighths depending how chunky you like them)
25g Walnut Oil
220g Water (Reduce to 200g and follow the Foolproof Sourdough recipe if you're not feeling too confident)
Flour/Rice Flour for dusting
Day 1 – Before you go to bed
In a glass jar mix together your starter, flours and water. Use a silicone spatula to clean down the sides of the jar so you can see the level of the mixture inside and cover with a loose fitting lid.
Leave this overnight at room temperature (8-12 hours).
By the morning it should have at least doubled in size or preferably tripled. If it hasn’t, don’t continue with the recipe! Give the starter another feed that evening and hopefully by the following morning it will be active enough.
In a KitchenAid or large bowl mix your flours and the water until they come together into a shaggy lump. You don’t need to go crazy with the mixing, just enough so there isn’t any loose flour at the bottom of the bowl. Let this mixture rest between 30 minutes to 4 hours.
Add 100g of sourdough starter to the ‘dough’ and mix it in on a low speed for 3 minutes. This should be enough time for the leaven to be fully incorporated. Again, let this mixture rest, this time for 30 minutes.
Add 7g of salt and 25g of walnut oil then mix on a low speed for 3 minutes. Now leave your dough to ferment for 6 hours, performing stretch and folds every hour for the first 4 hours.
Incorporate the walnuts and figs during the first set of stretch and folds. Sprinkle them over the top of the dough and push them into it with your fingers. Now continue with the stretch and folds as normal, pulling one side of the dough up from the bowl and folding it onto the walnuts and figs in the middle. Then turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat 3 more times, turning the bowl each time to complete a full circle. This will build up layers of nuts, figs and dough with a concentrated pocket of them in the middle. These will continue to get dispersed more evenly throughout the dough during the next three sets of stretch and folds. Once you have done this every hour for 4 hours (4 sets), leave the dough to bulk ferment undisturbed for the final two hours.
By the end of this bulk fermentation you should notice the dough has grown significantly, has a domed surface with a few bubbles appearing on it and is still holding a little of its shape from the last set of stretch and folds. If the dough hasn’t grown much, perform an extra set of stretch and folds and then leave it for a further 1 to 2 hours.
You now need to shape your loaves. As we are only making one loaf, I don't find it necessary to do a pre-shape and bench rest, so jump straight to the final shaping. As always though, you want to be careful not to degas the dough too much, whilst still building up enough tension to ensure your final loaf has a good shape and springs well in the oven. Dust your work surface with a little flour, and gently ease the dough out of the bowl onto it. Holding the bottom of the dough (the side closest to you) gently pull it towards you and then fold it back over itself by two thirds, leaving one third uncovered at the top. Now hold the dough by its sides and gently stretch it outwards, fold one side up and over onto itself, followed by the other side so they overlap each other in the middle. Next take the top of the dough (the side furthest from you) and gently pull it out and up, then fold it down on itself, about one third of the way down the dough. Now continue to roll the dough from the top like a Swiss roll. Use your thumbs to push the dough into itself in the centre, creating tension as you roll, you should end up with a cylindrical shape that is smooth and taut across the top. Tidy up the ends by gently pushing any dough or loose figs and nuts back into the loaf and then gently crimping the dough to hold them in place. Dust the loaf and the banneton with flour, then place your loaf in it seam side up, cover with a tea towel and leave to proof for 30 to 60 minutes.
Pre-heat your oven to 240c with a Dutch Oven or stock pot in it. When you are ready to bake, remove the pot from the oven and transfer your proofed loaf into it, being very careful not to burn yourself! I like to sit the dough on a piece of baking parchment to ensure it doesn’t stick. Slash the top of the loaf with a pattern of your choice (the walnuts and figs prohibit you from doing anything too elaborate), put the lid on and return to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. After this time, remove the lid and turn the oven down to 200c, then continue to cook for a further 20 minutes.
Once cooked, transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool before slicing.