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GOOD COOKING

Romancing the Sponge

March 05, 1992|ABBY MANDEL

Baking yeast breads is one of my passions, and the food processor has been my primary tool for mixing and kneading them.

The fact that the dough for a 1 1/2-pound loaf can be mixed and kneaded in a standard-size processor in roughly one minute without any additional hand-kneading is amazing to me. Simplicity and speed have always been my guidelines--and the bread I make this way has always been of excellent quality. That's why, for years, I've resisted bread recipes that require the extra step of making a preliminary "sponge" or starter.

Recently, though, I experimented with overnight sponges for yeast breads and I am duly convinced that the slightly tangy flavor and more porous texture of these loaves make this preliminary preparation worthwhile.

Forethought is the key. Bread making takes planning even in its simplest form; a little more is in order with a sponge. You mix up the sponge the day before, cover it with plastic and keep it in a warm place. It hardly takes any time to do this. In fact, the dough seems to rise somewhat more quickly when a sponge is used.

The whole-wheat breads that follow are based on the same sponge, but they are quite different in their final forms. The crusty whole-wheat baguettes are earthy, the honey-buttermilk whole-wheat rolls have a soft texture, and the rosemary focaccia, with garlic, red onion, Parmesan cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, is crisp, light and chewy.

All of these doughs are very sticky, almost wet, making them very difficult to mix and knead by hand. The food processor continues to be my equipment of choice, but a mixer fitted with a dough hook will do the job--just not as quickly and neatly.

A large processor (with a seven-inch-diameter bowl) will handle each of these recipes in a single batch. To make these recipes in a standard-size processor, mix the sponge with the water or buttermilk, salt and other specified ingredients. But before adding the remaining flour, divide the sponge in two and mix and knead the recipe in two batches (no need to wash the work bowl between batches).

You can also use the refrigerator for helpful breaks when making bread dough. After the dough has risen once, it can be refrigerated overnight; just be sure to punch it down before refrigerating it. The dough is easier to handle and the texture seems more interesting.

Alternatively, after the loaves are shaped in the pan they can be refrigerated several hours with plastic draped over them. They will require about 1 1/2 hours at room temperature before they are doubled to bake, but will emerge with an even crustier texture.

FREEZER FRESHNESS

Breads taste best when freshly baked because they have no preservatives and little fat. Freeze any bread or rolls that will not be used the day they are baked. Breads freeze well when you go about it in a specific way. Here's how:

* Cool breads completely on a wire rack. Place them in the freezer, unwrapped, until they are frozen solid. Remove them from the freezer and double-wrap them in airtight plastic food bags or foil. Return them to the freezer for up to two months.

* When ready to use frozen breads, thaw them and reheat in a 350-degree oven until just warmed through, not hot, about five to 10 minutes, wrapped in foil for a soft crust or uncovered for a firmer crust.

BASIC SPONGE

1 package dry yeast

1 1/4 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 cup bread flour

Combine yeast and warm water in 3-quart bowl. Let stand until some yeast clumps rise to surface. Gradually stir in flours. Mixture will be very thick. Cover with plastic.

Let stand overnight in warm place. Sponge will double and become puffy. Use as directed in recipes. Makes enough for 2 baguettes, 16 rolls and 2 focaccia loaves.

One batch of sponge contains about:

882 calories; 12 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 185 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 2.5 grams fiber; 4% calories from fat.

These baguettes are crusty, deep brown and dusted with flour. The dough can also be shaped into a round and baked on a pizza pan, preferably black steel. Slash the loaves with a sharp knife or with the metal blade of a food processor (hold it carefully by the center hub); deep slashes make a great - looking baguette.

CRUSTY WHOLE-WHEAT BAGUETTES

Basic Sponge

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup bread flour

Oil and cornmeal for pan

In processor fitted with metal blade, mix Basic Sponge with water, salt and honey until smooth. Combine flours. (If processor is standard-size, remove half of sponge mixture and add flours in 2 batches.) Add combined flours, 1/4 cup at time, pulsing several times to incorporate each addition. Then process dough until supple, elastic and sticking slightly to work bowl, about 1 minute, adding more water or flour by teaspoon, if dough is either too dry or too wet. Dough should be very sticky.

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