At a long gone restaurant on the Southside, where I first had a proper risotto, I was once served a wonderful house-baked bread. It was crusty, it was golden, it was studded with sesame seeds. It was a perfect companion to a saucy ragout. Reading The Unplugged Kitchen, I saw the Viana La Place recipe for semolina bread, and it sparked my memory.
Rummaging around my bookshelves and the internet, I found some conflicting opinions. I thought I'd try a plain round loaf first, and maybe then move on to the nifty traditional Sicilian shapes and/or a batard. Unhulled sesame seeds sounded wonderful, but I didn't want to wait until I found some, so I thought I'd start with my supply of sesame seeds ordinaire. I then tackled the flour issue.
After consulting a number of opinions and authorities, there is still a good deal of confusion in my mind about the right flour to use when making a Sicilian-style semolina bread. The two possibilities are durum flour and semolina flour. Both are milled from a special hard, glutinous wheat, seemingly the same kind-possibly different parts of that wheat. Both are used in pasta making.
Generally, semolina is milled more coarsely than durum. This would seem to be because it is more difficult to mill finely. Nonetheless, there is a special, silky, finely milled semolina flour which is used in Sicily to make this bread. It is apparently not available elsewhere. Viana La Place and Carol Field both recommend using a Golden Durum flour, as the best substitute.
I have not found Golden Durum flour either, in town or on the web, under that name, or by that description. The durum flour I saw at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company in the Strip was not at all golden-it was ivory. Further, the semolina flour did not look all that coarse. Golden was, for me, an important feature. Sooo...guess what I bought? The Mss. La Place and Field had suggested that if nice durum flour was not available, it would be cool to powder the semolina flour with the plain flour in their (nearly identical) recipes. This could be done, they both said, bit by bit in a blender. All are agreed that coarse semolina flour, untweaked, will not make bread.
As I do not have a blender (except for my beloved immersion model, which is unsuitable), and as I my food processor is recently deceased, I actually performed this feat in my fine little coffee grinder. Truth be told, it was neither difficult nor time consuming. I'm still not sure it was necessary, though. The semolina flour looked pretty fine to begin with-though not silky, I admit. I may try a bread without the coffee grinder step, just to see.
When it came time to put my lone round bread in the oven, I could not resist docking it, somewhat in the traditional manner. (The traditional docked shape is, however, a half-moon, rather than a circle-per Ms. Field's drawings (and also, if I recall correctly, some sketches in a Mary Taylor Simiti book.)
Some time after I took the bread out of the oven, I set to work to make a dessert cake, for my friends who were coming to dinner. I hauled out my all purpose flour again, from the giant snap-top plastic bin where all my flour bags live, stacked. The bag on top (and hence, the bag I had just used for this bread) was not, as I had intended, King Arthur Unbleached All-purpose Flour, but rather, their White Whole Wheat Flour. Whoops.
It was okay, though. The bread was delicious, and long lasting too. It was good fresh with shrimp chowder for supper, and I was still toasting it (it's really good toasted)-three days later. The texture is quite close grained and more cake-like than my usually favorite chewy country-style breads, but still toothsome and unmushy. The taste is great, with all sorts of wheaty flavors.The sesame seeds are delish on top-I used lots. Next time I'm going to use less yeast, and let it rise longer- this loaf blew up really fast, which is not usually, IMHO, the best thing for flavor. Further experiments to follow.
Here is the recipe I used this time, adapted from Carol Field and Viana La Place:
dry yeast (instant-not quick rising) 2 1/2 tsps
lukewarm water 1 1/2 cups
Extra Virgin olive Oil 1 tbsp
fine semolina flour 2 cups
King Arthur white whole wheat flour 1 1/2 cups
sea salt 2 tsps
1/3 cup sesame seeds
Process flours and sea salt together in small batches in food processor or coffee grinder, until fine and maybe also- silky. Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl of stand mixer. Add flour and oil to bowl, and combine with paddle attachment. Cover and let rest 20 minutes. Change to dough hook and knead 5 or 6 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough on lightly greased bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled- 1 hour at most!
Shape dough into a round, and cover. I did this by placing it in my floured reed banneton, and covering it with a transparent shower cap I keep for this eccentric purpose. Let rise again until doubled, preheating the oven (containing tiles or a baking stone) to 425F. Turn risen bread out onto a bread peel or the back of a cookie sheet which has been covered in baking parchment.
Paint the surface of the loaf lightly with water, using a pastry brush.Sprinkle seeds over surface, and press them in very gently. If you wish to shape the bread as I did, just slice the edge, every few inches, as pictured. Slide the bread (and parchment) onto the stone, and close oven door. Open oven and toss in a few ice cubes, for a bit of steam.
After 10 minutes, open oven, slide parchment out from under the bread, and turn down to 400F. Cook an additional 45 minutes or so, or until it sounds hollow when you rap on the bottom. Cool on rack.
Note: After baking my bread, I was noodling around some more, and found this in a section of The Artisan, which gathered everything I found previously on the topic, and more, in one place. The Artisan is new to me; if it is new to you, too, you might want to check it out.
Addendum: Made a second loaf, identically, except used King Arthur All-purpose Flour, and did not pregrind the semolina flour. An entirely different texture- chewier, with holes, less dense and cornbread like-more like a country french texture, love it- the same delicious taste-nicer texture. This one blew up even faster, though. Next time-less yeast, longer rising. Funny-the loaves were the same size, yet the 2nd loaf was airier. Still substantial though- and it tastes great! I need to find out the brand of flour PA Mac is selling-as they rebag into 5lbs from larger amounts, and don't label brands. Will report further developments.