Friday, January 8, 2010
Extra Crunchy Fennel Flavored Breadsticks
I've been experimenting with the breadstick recipes in Carol Field's book The Italian Baker. What first put the idea in my head to bake some breadsticks was dinner at Incanto in San Francisco. They had some wonderful fennel flecked breadsticks on the table and I could hardly stop munching (crunching?) them. At that time I was harvesting lots of aromatic seeds from my Red Florence Fennel so I was determined to make my own version. Fast forward a few weeks, post-holiday madness, I'm finally crunching some of my own.
What I liked about the Incanto sticks is that they were light, crunchy, and very flavorful. I've given up on buying breadsticks, more often than not they have no flavor or they are doughy and heavy. Although, there is one vendor at the farmer's market that has good breadsticks, but they are so expensive. Anyway, I've never seen fennel flavored breadsticks anywhere but the restaurant and that's too far for me to go to get a regular fix.
So, out came my trusty old favorite book about Italian baking. I can't believe that the book was first published nearly 25 years ago, and my copy is nearly that old and starting to look like it. I've used many of the recipes in the book and this isn't my first time making the breadsticks. There isn't actually a version that uses fennel seeds, but most of the recipes use almost the exact same proportions of water, flour, yeast, oil, and salt, the main variations being in the flavorings. All I had to do was figure out how much fennel seed to use. The first attempt was not my best. Actually, it had everything I wanted in a good breadstick except I used far to much fennel. The aroma was fabulous, good crunch, first bite tasted good, and then the fennel flavor became overwhelming, it actually seemed to have a bit of a numbing effect on the tongue. Darn.
For my second attempt, I tried a different flavor, fresh sage. I pretty much followed the recipe for the sage breadsticks except I substituted whole wheat flour for 20% of the white flour. Ah, now those were good! Fabulous when wrapped with some prosciutto.
Today, for my third attempt, I went back to fennel. This time I used a lot less and I also substituted spelt flour for some of the white flour. They smell wonderful, not so strongly fennel scented as the first time, I like this batch, just enough fennel. And I do like the addition of the spelt flour, although it does make the breadsticks a bit less light.
Here's today's version, it's a good start and I want to remember what I did so that I can tweak it some more next time. (And, yes I know, I'm mixing my measuring standards, but so does the original recipe.)
Fennel Seed Breadsticks
1 1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup
1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup olive oil
125 grams spelt flour
375 grams unbleached all-purpose flour
10 grams kosher salt
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, slightly crushed
Heat the water a bit warmer than the yeast would like and stir the malt syrup into it until the syrup dissolves, this takes a while as it tends to be reluctant to dissolve. Rewarm the water and syrup mixture if necessary to bring it up to about 105F. Stir the yeast into the water and let it stand until foamy.
Meanwhile, combine the flours and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. When the yeast mixture has foamed up a bit, add it to the flour mixture along with the olive oil. Mix until the dough comes together and knead on low speed for a few minutes, working in the fennel seeds towards the end.
Turn the dough out and knead briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface. Pat the dough into a 14 X 4-inch rectangle and set it on a surface that has been lightly dusted with semolina flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 450F about 15 minutes or more before the dough is done rising. Position one rack in the upper third of the oven and another rack in the lower third.
Sprinkle the risen dough with semolina flour. Cut the dough crosswise (the short way) into 1/2-inch wide strips, or a bit thicker for the end pieces if the ends of the rectangle are rounded. You should have about 22 strips. Use 2 rimless 13.5 X 15-inch baking sheets, or you can turn 2 rimmed baking sheets of a similar size upside down. I like to roll each strip through the semolina flour on the work surface to lightly coat the cut sides. Pick up one strip and holding each end of the strip in with your fingers, pull and stretch the piece of dough to fit the baking pan crosswise. Continue with the rest of the dough strips until both pans are filled with the strips of dough. The strips may shrink a bit, just stretch them a bit more as they lay on the pan, so that they fit from one edge of the pan to the other.
No need to let the sticks rise a second time, put them in the preheated oven and immediately turn the oven down to 400F. Bake for 10 minutes and then rotate the pans from the top rack to the bottom rack and vice versa. Bake another 10 minutes. At this point I like to turn the oven off, open the door, but leave the bread sticks in the oven for about 30 minutes. This makes them extra crispy, the way I like them. But you may prefer to just take them out and let them cool on the pans on a cooling rack.
The sage flavored bread sticks were the same recipe, except I used 100 grams of regular whole wheat flour and 400 grams of unbleached all-purpose flour. Substitute 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage for the fennel seeds.
You can also make the recipe with all unbleached all-purpose flour, 500 grams (3 3/4 cups).