Blue Cheese, Apricot and Pecan Boule
There are certain things that I am absolutely helpless to resist. These things include two for one shoe sales, the food samples at Costco (hey, at least I don’t bring a family of 15 there on the pretense of a free lunch in 1 ounce increments), and discounted cheese. Any cheese and any discount are fine by me. A random cheese from Patagonia with a 2% discount will still have me wheedling, “But Mike, we’ve never haaaaad it! And it’s on saaaaaale!!” My affection for cheese is a stand-alone reason for why I may not fit into my wedding dress in two months. Let’s just say that there have been a lot of sales lately, and I seem to have found them all.
I can’t even pretend to play favorites where cheese is concerned, because I like it soft and I like it hard. I like it creamy and sweet but I like it salty and soulful. Rich cheese, soft cheese, any cheese really, and I am smitten. Some of my favorites, however, are the blues. I have a running theory that when Picasso went through his blue period it was actually due to a glut of Spanish Valdeon into France. Historians may disagree, but what do they know anyway? Saint Agur (which I used for this recipe), Cambezola, Bleu de Bresse, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Dolcelatte are but to name a few of the ones I keen for on a rainy night when I’m sitting alone with a box of crackers and some time on my hands. It is also possible that sometimes I eat the blue cheese standing, swaying from side to side and murmuring in a most un-musical way, “Blu-ue cheese….you saw me standing a-lone….without a dream in my heart……without a cheese of my own….”
Do you ever get into a bit of a rut where you’re fixated on a certain combination of flavors for months on end? For me, last year I went through my cocoa & chili, lavendar & lemon, orange & fennel, and pomegranate & cumin phases…none of which I am entirely out of. They were, however, joined by the blue cheese and fruit cravings. Poached apricots stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped with prosciutto? Yes please! Farro salad with blue cheese and cranberry? Well, if I must. My latest iteration of this frenzy is adding blue cheese and baked goods that walk the line between sweet and savory, and this blue cheese, apricot and pecan bread is one of them.
Bread making is a bit of a passion of mine. Although for ‘regular use’ I usually use a quick rise dough (‘quick’ in the greater scheme of things, of course), I am no stranger to the starter, poolish or cultured breads that are long-worthy. I may not talk about them very often, but that’s because I know that for many people the thought of waiting a few hours to finish your baking can be a stretch, let alone waiting a few days. For that reason alone, active dry yeast and a same-day breads are usually what wend their way onto this site.
This bread is a ‘boule’, which simply means ’round bread’. Or maybe just ’round’. I don’t know, I dropped French in high school. The point is that this is a rustic looking loaf with a nicely thick, crispy crust surrounding a moist and soft interior. Just like me. No wonder I think bread is so beautiful.
Blue Cheese, Apricot and Pecan Boule
Makes 1 loaf
- 2 tsp active dried yeast
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 cup warm milk
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 tbsp kosher salt *
- 3.75 – 4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup pecan pieces
- 3/4 dried apricot
- 175 g (6 oz) blue cheese **
* If you use a blue which is on the salty side you might want to consider scaling this amount back.
** Although I used Saint Agur, any of your favorite blue cheeses will do. Remember that it’s just going to melt into the bread anyway, so even a blue which is firm as opposed to creamy will be a fine bet.
Stir together the yeast, brown sugar, milk and water in a large mixing bowl. Be sure that the liquids are just warm and not hot (you should be able to submerge your pinky into them comfortably for at least 10 seconds) because if they’re too hot then you’ll kill off the yeast.
Wait for a few minutes until the yeast starts to foam and bubble just a bit because then you can be sure that it is active and get on with the rest of the recipe. If your yeast has not started to spawn after 10 minutes, give up and throw it to the hogs. You’ll have to start again with a new yeast that you know is fresh.
Add the salt and 3.75 cups of flour. Stir the mixture until it starts to come together and then gently knead it until it is a solid mass. The dough should be moist but not overly sticky. If it is sticky, add the additional flour a tablespoon at a time until you feel comfortable kneading it out. The dough will dry out slightly as you knead it, but if it is sticking to your hands then you can’t count on that being enough.
Turn the rough dough out onto a surface which has been just lightly dusted with flour.
Knead the dough for 5-7 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. When your dough is at the ‘baby’s bum’ stage, pat it out into a rectangle as best you can and set it aside.
Roughly chop the pecans and dice the apricots into chunks about 1/4″ square.
When the dough has rested for at least 5 minutes, pat it out again into a fairly large rectangle. Sprinkle the apricots and pecans over top and press the pieces into the dough until some are almost immersed. Crumble the blue cheese evenly over top.
Carefully roll the dough up into a tube along the long side. Stretch and press the dough as you go along to make sure that all the filling is contained. Pinch the seam and ends of the cylinder to seal it.
Turn the ends in towards the center and press them down into one another. The reason that we’re doing this is that we want the filling to be interspersed through the dough, and folding the dough also encourages a good rise.
Turn the dough and gently pat and stretch the outside until you can pass it back and forth in your hands like a smooth-ish basketball.
Lightly oil a large bowl and turn the dough ball around in it until it is covered in a thin film. Place a clean dish towel over top and set it aside in a warm, draft free spot to rise for at least an hour or up to 3. You know that you’re ready when the dough has roughly doubled in size.
Throw the dough (literally, because you want to knock the air out of it) onto a lightly floured work surface. Okay, maybe more than ‘lightly floured’. You want to punch down the dough and then pack it back into a round shape without adding any extra flour if you can help it, but then roll the dough ball through a bit of flour until it is coated….if you want. You don’t have to, I just think it’s all purty-like, and I’m a sucker for a pretty ball of dough.
Using a short, sharp knife, cut a few slashes into the top. Or an ‘X’. Or a skull and crossbones with a sign saying, “KEEP OUT! NOT YOUR BREAD!” It doesn’t really matter, but do cut something because again it will help the rise (but in the oven this time) and look awfully comely when all is said and done.
Place the prepared ball onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (nobody ever died from being too careful when it came to baked on cheese) and cover it again with a tea towel. Let the bread rise for at least 45 minutes, or until it has increased in size by about 50%.
While the dough is rising, move your oven rack down into the lower third and preheat it to 400ºF.
Bake the bread for 32-40 minutes, or until the top is a roasty-toasty rich dark brown. When you turn the dough over and rap lightly on the bottom it should sound dense but still hollow.
I like to think that if a baker mated with Wolverine (and by ‘a baker’ I mean me. By ‘Wolverine’, obviously, I mean Hugh Jackman) I like to think that this is what they would produce after they drank themselves silly on chardonnay.
Let the bread cool before cutting into it. After 30 minutes it will likely still be warm enough to gently melt a thin slather of soft butter, and that sounds just about perfect to me.
This loaf is slightly dense and chewy but deliciously soft, spiked throughout with sweet apricots, earthy and buttery pecans, and veins of rich, aromatic blue cheese running throughout.
As good with a cup of coffee as a glass of slightly sweet chardonnay or dry merlot, this bread has wine and cheese party written all over it. Or, if you’re in my house, it also has breakfast, lunch and snack written all over it too.