~ Loafin' in the Strip District ~
One of my favorite places in Pittsburgh is the Strip District. Whoa, whoa, whoa! Before you go smirking and raising one eyebrow, it's not the racy place you might be imagining. Not that I don't appeciate a fine physical specimen, but, well... let me help you pull those thoughts out of the gutter. The Strip District, which got its name because it's on a tiny strip of land northeast of downtown, started as an industrial area that evolved into the wholesale produce district. When grocery stores began buying directly from growers, the wholesalers responded by opening retail shops. Today it's the best place to shop for just about anything culinary. Other retailers are on the scene, too, and the atmosphere on Saturday mornings is friendly, bustling, and fabulous!
It's hard to believe it's been two summers ago that I discovered this bread at the Farmers@Firehouse (mostly) organic farmer's market in the Strip. HotDog and I were perusing the goods when I saw a bakery stand with gorgeous loaves of bread. One round loaf stood out. "What is that one?" I asked. The baker told me it was a Black Pepper and Parmesan bread. She explained the $8 price tag by adding that it had a half pound of Parmesan cheese in every loaf. Intrigue instantly trumped practicality, and I forked over the greenbacks. I got it home and discovered that it was worth every penny! Strangely enough, I particularly enjoyed it with my morning coffee. Since then, I have had occasional daydreams starring this bread. Subsequent visits to the farmer's market did not reunite us. I began to search the internet for a recipe. From my online findings, I took what I liked, added what I thought were improvements, and I finally got around to trying it at home. Why, for the life of me, did I wait so long?
(Before you start this recipe, do some backwards kitchen math based on when you are able to bake it. I knew I could bake the bread Sunday afternoon, so I made sure to start it by mid-Saturday afternoon. This recipe is very easy but requires a few well-timed steps.)
Black Pepper Parmesan Bread
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon dry yeast (not quick-rise)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
up to 1 Tablespoon black pepper, coursely ground
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, cut into 1/4" cubes
1 large or 3 small/medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
1 5/8 cup water that was used to boil the potato, slightly cooled
3-4 quart cast iron dutch oven with lid
Add potatoes to about 4 cups of cold water. Boil over medium-high heat until potatoes are fork-tender. Set aside and let it begin to cool.
Because my disappointment would be too great to bear if my bread did not rise, I always test to see if my yeast is still alive. Much like some humans, all yeast needs to be happy is a nice warm bath and something sweet to eat. Here's what I do to proof, or test, my yeast: Dissolve about a 1 teaspoon of sugar into 1/2 cup of warm water that is between 105-115 degrees F; yeast is finicky about its bath temperature, so use a thermometer. Stir in about 1 teaspoon of yeast. Let this sit for about 10-15 minutes. If your yeast is alive and happy, you will see a creamy, foamy layer on top the water. This is caused by the CO2 emitted by the yeast as it feasts on the sugar. If this layer doesn't appear, the yeast is dead. You'll need to start a new test with a new package of yeast. Unfortunately, this may require a quick trip to the store.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, yeast, salt, black pepper, and Parmesan cheese. When the potato water cools to about 125-130 degrees F, strain and add 1 5/8 cup to the flour mixture and stir until its mixed evenly. Note that the water temperature here is higher than when you add yeast directly to the water. The temp can be a little higher when the yeast is in a flour mixture, because the water instantly cools when it mixes with other ingredients.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for 12-24 hours. I waited about 23 hours before continuing, over which time mine may have risen to 1 1/2 times its size.
Remove the plastic wrap and set it aside briefly. Carefully move the dough to a lightly-floured work surface. Fold the dough onto itself a few times, sprinkling a little flour on it between folds. Gently shape it into a ball with seams down and re-cover loosely with the plastic wrap. Let it rest again for about 15 minutes.
Sprinkle a smooth cotton dishtowel (not terrycloth) with cornmeal. Place the loaf on the cornmeal and cover with another smooth cotton dishtowel that has been sprinkled with flour. Let the dough rise for 2 hours.
During these 2 hours, first set a timer for 1 1/2 hours. When the timer goes off, place your cast iron pot in the oven and begin preheating at 450 degrees F. Set the timer for another 30 minutes.
Remove the cast iron pot from the oven and carefully transer your round (or oval) loaf from the towel to the preheated pot, cornmeal side down. You'll hear the bread sizzle a little as it makes contact with the pot. Preheating the pot is essential to keeping the loaf from sticking to it. If you put the loaf into a room temperature pot, the pot and the bread will heat up at the same time and form a bond. Bonding is good for friends and family, but not for food and cookware!
Cover and bake at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes. Since I have not invested in the optional metal knob for my lid , I had to get a screwdriver and remove the plastic one to bake at this high temperature. (Hey, I spent $8 on a loaf of bread, so I have to cut costs somewhere!) Remove lid and bake an additional 20 minutes or until the loaf is a splendid golden brown.
Place the pot on a wire rack and cool 10 minutes. Gently loosen the bread with a heat-resistant spatula. It should come out rather easily, particularly if the cast iron is enameled.
Typically, bread should be cooled completely before slicing. I may have been able to wait an additional 5 minutes after removing it from the pot. The smell alone was killing me! If I could put a scratch-and-sniff on this blog to relay to you how this bread made my house smell, I sure as heck would! It was divine.
I carefully and gently sliced it with my bread knife. The Parmesan chunks were now little pockets of molten treasures. If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see how they glistened. Simply glorious.
I took a bite. OH. MY. WORD. I asked HotDog's 15-year old son, D2, if he wanted to try it. "Sure," he says. I cut my slice in half to split with him, not sure he would like all the peppery-ness. We gobbled that first slice down in seconds. He said he'd take a whole slice this time. I sliced up another for each of us, then one to deliver to HotDog. "Here, HotDog. Try this!" He gobbled it down and said he wanted another. D2 then said, "Another slice wouldn't hurt me."
No lie. Within 7 minutes, our loaf looked like this.
We lamented on how delicious these slices would be grilled. You know, for the next time I bake it. And I did enjoy a fried egg on two remnant slices.
Definitely a Keeper.
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