One of the favorites on the Rich Table menu is Sarah’s country style levain. The bread is served warm with house-churned cultured butter. Sometimes the bread is scented with Douglas fir, but the most popular version is when it is flavored with wild fennel “pollen”. The pollen is actually the bright yellow tiny flowers of wild pollen that grows all over Northern California and blooms from mid to late summer. Rich Table has their own forager who brings the pollen in from fields north of San Francisco, and the restaurant has an abundance now. Unfortunately the source is regional and seasonal – that’s one of the reasons for using Douglas fir – but if you don’t happen to live in Northern California, ground fennel seeds can make a workable substitute. The smell and taste are not as delicate, and if you use too much can be overpowering, so use it carefully.
On a recent visit to San Francisco, I watched Sarah make her bread in the basement prep kitchen at Rich Table. The experience inspired me to try to adapt the recipe for the home baker. This is pretty close to the real thing, but Sarah did not share any of her baking secrets with Old Dad.
Sarah’s recipe makes twelve large loves, too much for the home baker. For that reason, I have pared down the ingredients to make two generous loaves. I have made some other modifications to make it easier for the home baker. First, professional bakers weigh their ingredients, while home bakers usually measure things in cups and spoons, so I have set the quantities in the home style. Second, if you have your own sourdough starter, that is great, but if you don’t you can substitute packaged dry yeast. Third, if you have harvested your own wild fennel “pollen” (actually fennel flowers) that’s also great, but you can substitute ground fennel from your spice shelf. Finally, you can mix the dough by hand, but that is a labor of love, so I have used a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook for the kneading and gluten-release process. Resting times are very important to make sure the gluten releases and supports good lift of the dough.
Levain with Fennel Fragrance
- 3 cups + ¼ cup water
- 1 cup levain* or substitute 1 envelope dry yeast
- 6 cups bread flour
- ½ cup whole wheat flour
- ½ cup rye flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
- vegetable shortening or butter for greasing bread pans
* Baker’s note: You can find the method for making your own levain or sour dough starter in an earlier post. If you choose to use yeast instead, increase the water and flour in the recipe by ½ cup each.
- Place 3 cups water in the large bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix in the levain (it should float in the water, otherwise it has not risen enough) or yeast. You should feed your levain the night before you bake to make sure it has good rising power the next morning.
- Slowly mix in the flour, a cup or so at a time. When the dough becomes stiff enough, change to the dough hook attachment.
- Add all the flour. Then beat with the dough hook at a slow speed for 10 minutes until smooth and shiny.
- Let the dough rest in the bowl for 30 minutes.
- Dissolve the salt in the ¼ cup water.
- Beat the salt mixture and ground fennel into the rested dough until completely incorporated.
- With a scraper, transfer the dough to a large metal bowl.
- Cover the dough with a plastic film and let rest for 30 minutes. Then turn the dough gently in all directions with moistened, clean hands. Recover the dough with the plastic film.
- Repeat turning the dough every 30 minutes for three additional times.
- Turn the dough out on a well-floured work surface. Divide into two equal pieces. Each piece should weigh a little over 2 pounds.
- Shape each piece of dough into a ball and let rest for 5 minutes.
- After the rest, shape the dough by lifting the far edge of the ball and pulling it to the center. Repeat this motion in all directions. Pinch closed any seams and let rest, covered with a cloth, for 10 minutes while you prepare the baking pans.
- Prepare two 9 x 5 inch bread pans by greasing the insides well with vegetable shortening or butter.
- Arrange the dough pieces, seam side down, in the two bread pans, cover with a clean cloth, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled.
- While the bread is rising, pre-heat the oven to 450°F (232 °C)
- When the loaves have risen, slash the tops with a sharp knife and transfer to the middle of the pre-heated oven.
- Bake for 15 minutes. Then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F (177°C) and continue to bake for 45 additional minutes. Turn the loaves front to back at least once during the baking.
- At the end of the baking time, test for doneness by thumping the bottoms for a hollow sound. Transfer the baked loaves to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.