I have a thing about puffy sultanas.
By ‘thing’ I mean I DETEST them. A regular dried up sultana causes me no issue, but cook or soak them in liquid of any sort and they make my skin crawl in the way I imagine some people shudder thinking about nails on a chalkboard. I’m not sure if it was my first encounter with the puffy sultana but my most vivid recollection of them from my childhood - and the first instance I remember the horror they could inflict - was when my mother made something called savoury mince when I was about 5. It was absolutely loaded with the things – squashy little pillows of sweetness tucked into a same-coloured meaty, bubbling mass in her square electric frypan. There they were, hiding amongst the meat and onions, all ready to explode in your mouth with none of the fun of popping candy and all the creepiness of a slimy bug. Clearly the meal left an impression because I can recall it to this day, along with the sheer teeth-gritting exasperation of my father as I slowly picked my way through dinner, removing every trace of wayward fruit and building a tiny mountain of discards at the edge of my plate.
All of that has almost nothing to do with bread, except for the part where I tell you how much I adore a good fruit loaf. It’s almost cruel, really, because nearly every fruit bread I’ve come across is packed with the dreaded puffy sultana. What to do – try to pick out the offending objects and destroy the enjoyment of a toasted slice? Tell myself they’re actually fine and eat the bread anyway, all the while thinking about how the texture makes me want to gag?
No more, people. Enter Spiced Apricot, Date and Seed Bread, a perfect recipe for your steam oven. It’s all the things I love about a fruit loaf: spicy, heavy but not too much so, loaded with chunky pieces of dried fruit but not a sultana to be seen anywhere. And not at all difficult to mix and form the day before, ready to bake in the steam oven the next morning.
I like the improved flavour and texture of the bread after a slow second rise overnight in the fridge, and that’s what I’ve given instructions for below. If, however, you want to bake this the same day you absolutely can. Do the second rise in your steam oven at 38⁰C after forming the loaf, until it has doubled in size and springs back when pressed gently. It takes about 30-35 minutes when I do this, and then you can go straight from proving to baking without removing the loaf from the oven. Watch the timing when you cook it though – because the dough won’t be as cold at the beginning of baking you’ll be able to knock about 5 minutes off the time.
This is a fine bread in a regular oven, but I’ve always found I have to soak the dried apricots in hot water before I mix up the dough, otherwise they’re hard and too chewy in the baked loaf. And I’ve stuck to that each time I’ve made it in the steam oven too, except this week I made it while the baby was crying and attached to my hip, and the extra step just seemed too hard. Turns out I’ve been boiling the kettle for nothing because the humidity of proving and baking in the steam oven gave almost exactly the same tender, moist apricots I was looking for. Thank goodness for a crying baby (said no one, ever).
Steam Oven Spiced Apricot, Date and Seed Bread
Makes one large loaf, approximately 1.1kg/2.5lb
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – if you were afraid of yeast doughs before, you have no need to be with a steam oven! Proving at a steady temperature in the steam oven takes most of the guesswork out of knowing how long to leave your dough to rise. And I’ve used instant yeast here as it needs no pre-activating before adding to the dough.
The fruit selection is up to you – I love apricots for their tang and dates for sweetness, but dried figs are also excellent, and if you like sultanas or raisins I won’t hold it against you. Just use the same total quantity of fruit as I’ve given below.
I’ve given instructions to make the dough in a mixer with dough hook – you can mix by hand if you prefer, and knead the dough for 8-10 minutes once it comes together.
240g (1 ¾ cups) whole wheat flour
325g (2 ½ cups) white bread flour (I use flour with a protein level of 11-12%)
7g (1 sachet, or 2 ½ tsp) instant dry yeast
55g (¼ cup) caster sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
About 360ml (1 ½ cups) lukewarm water (more or less depending on how dry your flour is and your climate/altitude)
100g (2/3 cup) chopped dried apricots (I like mine chopped quite chunky)
100g (2/3 cup) chopped dried dates (again, I prefer chunky)
40g (a heaped ¼ cup) sunflower seeds
40g (a heaped ¼ cup) pumpkin seeds
Put all the dry ingredients into the bowl of a mixer (I use my trusty KitchenAid) and stir to combine.
Attach the mixer’s dough hook and slowly mix in most of the water, adding a little more or less as needed to make a dough which is soft and slightly sticky. Mine comes away from the sides of the bowl after a few minutes but never completely clears the bottom.
Once the dough forms a mass, add in the fruit and seeds. Leave the mixer running until everything is incorporated and the dough is smooth and elastic, around 6-8 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, bring it together into a smooth ball and put back in a clean bowl. Put it in your steam oven at 38⁰C (use the dough proving setting if you have one) for 30 minutes. It should roughly double in size.
After the first prove, scrape the dough onto a lightly floured surface again and press gently into a large rectangle. Fold it into thirds along the length of the dough (I have an incredibly handy and cheap plastic dough scraper to help me out with lifting and folding the dough over without using too much flour). Turn the log of dough around, gently press it out again and repeat the folding to make a nice loaf shape. I have no idea whether this is the ‘right’ way to do it but I find it makes for a nice smooth loaf and if the fruit and seeds weren’t mixed in so evenly before it will distribute them well.
Gently pick up your dough and put it, seam side down, into a high sided loaf pan (I bought an expensive heavy siliconised pan like this one a few years ago and it’s been well worth the cost as everything I bake in it is lovely and even, and turns out really easily). Wrap the whole thing loosely in a plastic bag (or put a shower cap over the top of the tin!), and put it in the fridge overnight – anywhere from 12-14 hours is about right. The loaf pictured had exactly 14 hours in the fridge and I baked it as soon as I took it out.
After the second prove your loaf should have roughly doubled in size and the dough should spring back to shape when you gently press on the surface. If your finger leaves a big indent and the dough still seems ‘heavy’, it needs more proving – I like to leave it on the bench for half an hour or so to do this, but you can speed it along by putting it back in the steam oven to prove. Just keep an eye on it – if you poke the dough and the whole lot deflates then it’s over-proved and won’t bake up into a lovely springy loaf.
Set your steam oven to 220⁰C (combination steam setting). If your oven has variable steam settings, use 60%. Bake the bread for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180⁰C for a further 20 minutes. The loaf should be golden brown all over and sound hollow when tapped.
Remove from the oven, turn out of the tin and leave to cool. It will keep ok on the bench for a day or two, but is best sliced and frozen after that, ready for toasting.
But I don’t have a steam/combi-steam oven! Do everything as per the recipe. When it comes to the first proving step, set your dough aside (covered but not airtight) in a warm place. The time it will take to prove will depend a lot on the temperature of the room you leave it in – most places don’t run at a constant balmy 38⁰C! So you’ll likely find the first prove takes an hour or more to happen, rather than the 30 minutes it takes in a steam oven. Otherwise continue as normal, but add an extra 10-15 minutes to the cooking time.
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