My very, very favorite kind of bread to pair with cheese is one that's studded with dried fruit and nuts. There's something about the sweet-savory combination of elements in a loaf of this variety that's versatile enough to match any type of cheese. And match it well, to boot.
But so often, a good fruit and nut bread is either hard to find, or just not that great.
So I figured it was about time to start making my own.
For last week's holiday, I had it in my mind to emulate a favorite loaf of my father's. (I may have gotten my fruit and nut bread infatuation from him.) And somehow, despite a full day of traveling and weeks of rigorous holiday cooking for my job, I somehow mustered up the strength to quickly mix up a batch of no-knead bread at about midnight on the night before Thanksgiving.
I wanted it overloaded with the nuts and fruit. No holding back, unabashedly heavy on the fillers: in-your-face fruit and nut, sweet and savory, crunchy and chewy. I wanted each slice to be the ultimate luxury vehicle for cheese. I added as much dried fruits and nuts as I thought the dough could handle. And then I added some more. I wanted this loaf packed with the goods.
I talk a good deal about how fruit and nut breads are my favorites for cheese, and even in the following scenario I knew that the loaf wouldn't let me down: My mother hadn't really planned much in the way of cheese, but we knew we wanted some out for cocktail hour. She had a few simple cheeses lying around but hadn't bought anything specific, or even special. The cheeses were about as un-fancy as they get, actually-- a log of fresh goat cheese and a wedge of gruyere that we had bought to cook with. Clearly we were paying more attention to the main course than the appetizers. Needless to say, I was hoping that the bread would amplify the cheese.
Using the excellent and pretty foolproof Jim Lahey no-knead bread recipe as a template, I created a large loaf by increasing the basic proportions of flour, yeast, salt, and water by about a third. The loaf was large, indeed, and would have made amazing leftovers for a bread pudding or French toast, had it lasted.
You do need some foresight to make this, but as long as you can predict your craving the night before you'll be good to go. This recipe takes about 15 hours from start to finish, but the active time is a mere 10 minutes, max. The rest of the time is rising and baking.
The recipe is very forgiving, so don't let the prospect of baking bread make you nervous! And sub in your other favorite dried fruits and nuts. Great alternatives include dried cranberries, quartered prunes or dried figs, pecans, dried apricots, marcona almonds, and dried pears.
Indeed, enhance it did, our modest, grocery store-bought cheese. But no one was paying much mind to the cheese, anyway.
Date and Cherry Nut Bread
Makes One 14-inch round loaf
4 cups bread flour, plus additional for dusting
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups chopped toasted walnuts
1 1/2 cups blanched toasted hazelnuts
1 1/2 cups dried cherries
1 1/2 cups pitted dates, sliced
2 cups cool (55 to 65 degrees F) water
In a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir together the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the walnuts, hazelnuts, cherries, and dates, and mix until well distributed. Add the water and mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. If it's not really sticky to the touch, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, about 12-14 hours.
When the first rise is complete, place a large piece of parchment or waxed paper on a large baking sheet or platter. Dust generously with flour. Using a bowl scraper or rubber spatula, scrape the risen dough out of the bowl in one piece onto a well-floured work surface. Using lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula, lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.
Gently place the dough on the floured parchment or wax paper-lined platter, seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top with flour. Lightly place another piece of parchment or waxed paper on top of the dough and drape one to two tea towels on top, being sure to keep the dough well-covered from the air. Place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes and retest.
Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third, and place a covered 4 1/2 - to 5 1/2 -quart heavy pot in the center of the rack, such as a Le Creuset or Lodge cast iron dutch oven with a lid.
Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Remove the tea towels and the top layer of parchment or waxed paper. Using a bench scraper or large plastic spatula, carefully loosen the bottom edges of dough from parchment or waxed paper, to make sure it will release. Dust beneath the loaf with a bit more flour if you think it will stick when you go to flip it into the pot. Then, quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot, seam side up, to release it. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid and continue baking until bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to gently lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: No-Knead Bread in a Hurry
(Images: Nora Singley)