Last week, while sharing lunch with a friend, standing in line at the post office, answering phones at work, passing a stranger on the sidewalk, Charlottesville folks were discussing snow. Big snow...at least for our little city. The forecasters were predicting another huge storm, rumored to rival the December 19th event that pushed its way into the #4 slot on Charlottesville’s list of historic snowfall totals. It was all very exciting, and a tad bit scary. We were warned of the heaviness of this snow, expected to be so much wetter than the last accumulation. We were told to prepare for power outages and potential roof collapse, to be ready to spend days in our homes and to have the supplies required to get us through that time.
The city was a flurry of activity (ahem...pun intended) as residents scrambled to buy stores out of their supply of milk, eggs, and toilet paper. Snow shovels were a hot commodity, with those shops that managed to receive shipments putting a one-shovel-per-customer limit on purchases. We bought ice melt and candles, bread and cans of tuna, charcoal for our grill and meat and potatoes to place over the flame should we lose power and the use of our oven. We settled in, prepared for the worst, ready to weather the storm.
In the end we wound up with nearly 15 inches of snow, 10 inches less than predicted after sleet clinked against our windows and prevented substantial accumulation for most of Friday night. We were lucky enough to lose power only once, and then for only an hour. Although the city did a fine job of clearing primary roads during and after the storm, we still chose to remain at home, warm and cozy, for the entire weekend.
Brian and I have become quite adept at preparing for long periods of isolation in our house. We stock up on the necessities already mentioned, along with certain items that help to keep us entertained and pass the time - wine, multiple disks of Entourage, magazines and books, baking supplies. The last is the most important for me, as I take comfort in the fact that even if the sky were to dump 48 inches of snow across our lawn and we were to lose power for 7 full days, I could still make bread and cookies in our Big Green Egg. Also, I really like to bake, and the thought of three, uninterrupted days to do so makes me very, very happy.
And so, along with the necessary non-perishables and paper goods, my grocery bags contained milk and eggs, flour and yeast as I left the market Thursday afternoon. I browsed through my cookbooks that evening, imagining each one of my mixing bowls tucked into various corners of the kitchen, plastic wrap stretched tight across their tops, plump balls of dough slowly rising within. Brian requested something sweet, a dessert-ish bread to smear soft butter across as an after-dinner snack. Not one to ever pass on the suggestion of something sweet, I dove right into thoughts of a bread swirled with cinnamon and sugar, laced with figs and walnuts, the crumb sweetened by a touch of honey.
The loaf I was hoping for emerged from the oven just as the snow started to lighten Saturday evening. The intoxicating mélange of fresh-baked bread, sultry cinnamon, earthy walnuts and syrupy figs will forever bring to mind the vision of a silver-cloaked sun setting behind frosty trees, their limbs glimmering with a mask of tiny diamonds. A lovely ending, indeed.
Cinnamon Fig Walnut Bread
makes two 1-1/2 pound loaves
- 1/2 cup buttermilk (or whole milk), at room temperature
- 2 tbsp honey
- 3-1/2 cups unbleached bread flour, plus extra
- 1-1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tsp instant yeast
- 1-1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 large egg, slightly beaten
- 2 tbsp vegetable shortening, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup water, at room temperature
- 1 cup dried figs, chopped
- 1 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1/2 cup turbinado sugar (for cinnamon sugar swirl)
- 2 tbsp ground cinnamon (for cinnamon sugar swirl)
- 2 tbsp butter, melted
- Dissolve the honey in the buttermilk by heating both over low heat. Allow to cool to room temperature.
- Sift together the flour, salt, yeast and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg, shortening, buttermilk mixture and water. Stir together with a large spoon (or mix on low speed in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment) until the ingredients come together and form a ball. Adjust with flour and water if the dough seems too sticky or too dry and stiff.
- Sprinkle flour on a counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead (or mix on medium speed with the dough hook). The dough should be soft and pliable, tacky but not sticky. Add flour as you knead (or mix), if necessary to achieve this texture. Knead by hand for approximately 10 minutes (or by machine for 6 to 8 minutes). Sprinkle in the figs and walnuts during the final 2 minutes of kneading (or mixing) to distribute them evenly. If you are kneading with a mixer, you'll want to finish kneading by hand to avoid crushing the figs and walnuts, and to be sure to distribute them evenly.
- Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to ferment at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size.
- Mix together the 1/2 cup turbinado sugar and 2 tbsp ground cinnamon. Set aside.
- Butter two 4x8 loaf pans.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a 5x8 rectangle. Sprinkle half of the cinnamon sugar mixture over the dough, leaving a small border around the edge of the dough.
- Starting at the short end, carefully roll the dough into a tight log*, sealing the seam as best you can. Tuck the ends up towards the seam, sealing as best you can. Place the log in a buttered loaf pan, seam-side down. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Spray the tops of the loaves with spray oil and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Place in a warm, draft-free location to proof for 60 to 90 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350* with the rack in the middle of the oven. Uncover the loaves and brush the tops with melted butter. Sprinkle the tops with turbinado sugar.
- Bake the loaves for 20 minutes. Rotate the loaf pans 180 degrees and continue baking for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown on top and lightly golden on the sides and bottom. They should make a hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.
- Immediately remove the loaves from their pans and cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing and serving.
*I'm guessing that my loaf pulled apart along the swirl because it wasn't rolled tightly enough. It is still perfectly textured and delicious, the slices just don't hold together well as you bite into them.
The landscape during and after a winter storm is an amazing sight, always changing, different from one minute to the next. Every few hours I piled on layers of warmth, tucked my jeans into my boots, forced a hat over unruly hair, and trudged outside in the swirling snow to capture some of the magic.