So delicious, so beautiful...that's how the boule turned out (perhaps worthy of YeastSpotting?). Bread is notorious for scaring away your average home cook and even your occasional professional chef who never developed a hand for it (I've actually worked with quite a few). Many recipes incorporate long rising times, yeasts, baking percentages and even flour measured in ounces (oh goodness!)...but unless you are working a professional bakery and looking for consistency, you can throw all that jazz out the window and start experimenting.
This one started with what all good bread should start with...a big dollop of sourdough starter (see the pizza post for a good way to make your own). Since I was going for a small personal size loaf, I added only about a cup of lukewarm water (hot water will cook the flour and kill the starter while cold will just make the rising and fermenting process a bit slower). I had some wheat berries that I was sprouting, so I ground up and added handful of those to bring some extra enzyme activity to the dough. The sprouting process activates enzymes in the berries - I forget their names right now - that break down complex starches into simpler sugars, imparting delicious flavor to the dough and helping develop that nice golden crust. If you look at most unbleached flour, they will have malted barley flour as a minor ingredient which is essentially sprouted barley flour and since barley is particularly high in those enzymes, that little bit can make a real difference in the outcome of the bread.
Anyway, back to our loaf. A dollop of starter, a cup of water, some sprouted wheat and now enough whole wheat flour to make a very soft dough consistency. Always add flour a little bit at a time because it is always much easier to put more in than to try kneading in more water later (which can be done in a pinch - very slowly, just a splash at a time). I like to add just enough so that you can barely stir the dough, then let it sit and go do something else for a while (10 minutes to an hour). This will allow the flour to absorb the water and the gluten strands to start aligning, making kneading later a lot easier (also called an autolyse period). At this point I also added some rolled oats so that they could absorb some of that excess moisture as well and give a nice texture to the dough.
When I came back, the oats and flour had absorbed so much liquid that I could actually knead the dough pretty well...a little more flour was necessary, just add it a sprinkling at a time to keep the dough from sticking to the counter as you knead it. After a couple minutes, put the dough ball in a bowl and let it rise until you are about to go to bed (ideally a few hours). At this point, add the salt. Yes, probably the most important part of the whole flavor profile - without it the bread tastes closer to cardboard. As mentioned in my pizza post, a good ratio is 1 teaspoon salt for every cup of liquid in the bread, so for this one I added a teaspoon plus a little extra to account for the liquid in the starter. Once it is kneaded in, taste the dough to get a feel for raw dough flavor...this will help you hone your skills and improvise more easily in the future.
Now comes the waiting and baking. For this loaf, I put the kneaded dough in the fridge for the night, then took it out and formed a nice little boule first thing in the morning, put it in a bowl lined with a floured dish towel and let it rise while I had breakfast. Other shapes can be fun too, like batards or baguettes, but this was my first time using the flower pot steaming method (follow that link to the WildYeast blog - great site - to learn more about steaming, but in summary: steaming helps oven spring and crust development). When it was starting to look puffy, I preheated the oven for an hour to 450 degrees with my quarry tiles and flower pot inside. Come baking time, the boule comes carefully out of the bowl, onto a cornmealed piece of cardboard, scored with a sharp bread knife, slipped quickly onto the tiles and covered with the flower pot for ten to fifteen minutes. After that time, the pot was removed and cooked until golden brown. Yum.
Now comes the most difficult part...not cutting in right away. I know from experience that cutting in too soon will spoil the crumb, so take my advice and wait at least a half hour, preferably a whole hour (torture, I know) before cutting in. When you do, enjoy!
ps. As for flour type, I love baking this type of bread with King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour. It is still whole wheat, but it is a special variety of wheat that does not produce the same level of tannins that your normal hard winter wheat has (what usually gives whole wheat flour its darker color and sometimes a bitterish taste). It also has a very fine grind and a high protein content, making it perfect for great bread. Check it out!