Lavender-Thyme Bread

By • June 18, 2011 18 Comments

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Author Notes: I developed this recipe at the request of my friend, Pam, who is working towards opening a new and most welcome restaurant here. She had in mind some sort of lavender-flavored bread to feature as her house bread.

I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed such a fragrant bread experience. But it had its moments. The initial batch using strictly lavender blossoms was like- I can't mince words here - chewing on soap. I wondered what I'd gotten into. The second batch, in which I ground the lavender blossoms with the sugar, was as if - no mincing - I'd used lavender shampoo instead of water. Houston, we had a problem. I thought about it that night, literally with fingertips pressed to temples, eyes closed. It took an effort to erase the soap and shampoo memories from my palate, but when I did, I realized that we needed another note, an herbal one, to balance the floral notes of lavender. Friends and students tease me with the fact that if I make something, of course it has thyme in it. Yes! My friend thyme was just the thing. Armed with fresh sprigs harvested from the backyard, I strode back into the fray the next morning.

The first new version didn't have enough thyme in it. Or enough, hold onto your hats, lavender. The second with more of each was, eh, so-so. It wasn't until I spent another evening with the temples-fingertips-eyes closed thing that I happened upon lemon. The olive oil alone wasn't enough to transport the flavors. The next day, Houston, we achieved liftoff.

Now, you'll never say, man, can she lemon-zest a bread or what! In fact, you may not notice the lemon flavor as such at all. But the flavor and scent combinations are *bright*. They are unique. And that is what I was aiming for.

Pam, have fun!

Makes 2 generous loaves

  • 20 ounces water or whole milk, warm
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast or 1/2 tablespoon instant
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons organic dried lavender buds
  • 1 heaping tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 6 1/4 cups (2 pounds) unbleached bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
  • 4 ounces olive oil
  • Canola oil to oil the bowl before proofing dough
  1. Using water will give you a looser crumb, whereas milk will give you a tighter one and a bit richer flavor. Milk will raise the calorie count, where water will lower it. Use whichever you prefer.
  2. Warm milk in a stainless steel pan to about 85 degrees. Alternatively, run warm tap water to the same temperature. Pour into bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle active dry yeast over it and whisk it in. If using instant yeast, scale it straight into your flour.
  3. Pour sugar, lavender buds, fresh thyme leaves, and lemon zest into the bowl of a food processor. Turn on and let run while you scale the remaining ingredients.
  4. Measure flour (and instant yeast if using), salt, and olive oil straight into mixer bowl. Add the now-crumbled lavender mixture. Mix on lowest speed using the dough hook until ingredients come together and leave the sides and bottom of the bowl. Have a bit of water and flour to hand in case you need to adjust the balance a bit, but try to have the patience to let the dough and mixer do their jobs before you decide to add one or the other.
  5. Once dough has come together, turn off mixer and drape a piece of plastic around the top of the bowl. Set a timer for 10 minutes and walk away. You're giving the dough an autolyse, or rest period, to let the gluten in the flour fully hydrate without having to contend with being kneaded at the same time. After the rest period, remove the plastic and keep it nearby. After all the uncountable loaves of bread I've made, I still have never tired of this point: you'll turn the mixer on to low speed and watch a beautifully silky ball of dough revolve around the hook. It's like seeing a butterfly hatch from a cocoon. Within a couple of minutes you'll be able to stop the mixer, pull off a walnut-sized piece of dough, and briefly round it up between your palms. Tenderly begin stretching it over the tips of your fingers. You want to see how thin you can gently stretch it without it tearing. This is called testing for a windowpane. When you get it thin and can also tap gently on the backside, you're there; you've adequately developed the gluten in your flour. It will hold your bread up just like framing and timbers hold up your house. If the dough separates, simply toss the piece of dough back in and continue kneading on low speed for a few minutes more until you build a good windowpane.
  6. If you don't need your mixer again right away, you can proof your dough right in the same bowl. If you do need it, follow this step with another bowl. Turn your dough out onto your board. Pour a couple of teaspoons of canola oil into the bowl and use a paper towel to swish it around the sides and bottom. Return the dough to the bowl and turn it over from bottom to top so the oiled side is up. Cover with your original piece of plastic and allow to proof at room temperature until dough reaches the top of the mixer bowl. I find that when I use milk, this takes longer, sometimes by as much as 30 minutes. Proofing time will range from 45 to 90 minutes.
  7. When dough has doubled, remove plastic and hang onto it again. Turn dough out onto your board. Have a half-cup pile of flour nearby. Gently divide dough in half with a bench scraper. Shape each half into a hearth loaf in the shape of your choice: long and thin, shorter and sort of rectangular (a bâtard), round, long and thin and curled into an S shape; it's your bread, go to town. Gently invert it and tap the top into the pile of flour. This will prevent your well-used piece of plastic from sticking to the surface, and will also give it a rustic look I'm very fond of on virtually any kind of bread.
  8. Set each loaf on a baking sheet lined with parchment. These beauties grow, so leave some room between them. Drape that piece of plastic over them and let proof at room temperature until doubled. A finger gently pressed against the surface will leave an indentation. If it still feels springy, let it continue proofing. Have you ever baked bread and had it separate with a tearing sort of effect along the lower sides? You didn't let it proof long enough. Be patient. Let the yeast do its job. Baking bread is kind of like being pregnant. Very kind of.
  9. About 30 minutes into the proofing time, preheat oven to 375 degrees. When bread is ready for the oven, remove plastic. You're done with it; it's safe to toss it. Using a serrated knife, slash the surface of your loaves a good 1/2" deep, holding the knife at an acute angle. Give it at least 3 or 4 good slashes. You finally get to take charge of something; you're telling the dough the direction in which you want it to expand once it hits the heat of the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, but set a timer for 15 minutes and rotate loaves. Set it for another 15 minutes. Bread is done when it registers an internal temperature of 185 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from oven and remove from baking sheet onto a cooling rack. Please allow to cool to the point where you can comfortably handle before slicing. Otherwise, all you'll taste will be the heat. The lavender, thyme, and lemon form a subtle base-note sort of flavor that requires a cool temperature to distinguish.

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