Semolina Couche-y-Coo

It always surprise me how tastes change over time. Years ago, the only artisanal bread we bought was a hearty Country French, then we switched preferences to the airy, crusty Ciabatta loaves so named because they resemble a women’s slipper. Nowadays our loaf of choice is a golden, seeded semolina, however at nearly $5 per loaf, it is a pricey choice indeed.

So, yet again, we have embarked on another of our culinary quests to develop a manageable work-a-day recipe for semolina bread to accompany our favorite Italian antipasti and meals. The first obstacle was finding the right semolina flour and the second was forming the loaves into an appropriate shape.

A couche (pronounced “koosh” is a cloth used to proof dough or used to cover the dough while it is rising. Couche is from the French word coucher, meaning to lie down (unless you listen to Ella Fitzgerald in which case “Coochi-coochi-coo means I love you.”) A baker’s couche is not just floured fabric, it is usually a hard wearing canvas to which the dough will not stick. It is used to allow the dough to breath, hold its shape, and the crust to dry slightly. A dry crust makes it easier to handle and bakes slightly crispier. A couche is typically used for longer loaves, such as baguettes. Lean doughs are best for proofing in a couche to prevent the absorption of oils and impurities that can contaminate the cloth. Lean doughs are those that do not include eggs, milk and only have a minimal amount of oil. (A washable cotton canvas couche is best for richer dough.)

To condition a new couche, dust liberally with flour and work it into the weave of the fabric to prevent the dough from sticking. If dough sticks, allow to dry and scrape off. The cloth is left unwashed between uses to let yeast and flour collect in them which aids in the proofing process. Once you are done with the couche, allow it to dry completely and shake out any excess flour before rolling it up for storage. Storing the couche in an airtight bag or container will keep bugs from being attracted to it.

When hard wheat is milled, the endosperm is separated from its bran and germ. Semolina is made from the endosperm of durum wheat, while typical white bread flour is made from the endosperm of common or bread wheat. The cream-colored semolina contains the gluten protein that gives it unique properties for making good pasta and Italian-style breads. However, despite a very high protein content, semolina is low in the gluten needed to form a glutinous web necessary for bread to rise making it necessary to add white flour to the dough for a springy loaf of semolina bread.

  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon aniseed (optional)

Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of the warm water in a large measuring cup or small mixing bowl and add honey. Allow a few minutes for the yeast to proof before adding the olive oil to the liquid. In a separate mixing bowl or the bowl of your mixer whisk together the flours and salt and then slowly add in the yeast mixture. Keep working until the dry and liquid ingredients are fully incorporated.  If the mixture is too dry and tough, add in more water one tablespoon at a time until the dough is supple and sticks together.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface floured with a little more semolina and knead it for 5 to 8 minutes, until smooth. You can also accomplish this in a mixer with a dough hook attachment.

Grease a bowl, set the dough in the bowl, turning to coat all sides, cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour or more.

Punch the dough down, turn it out of the bowl, and shape it into one long loaf or two shorter loaves.  If you are coating the crust with seeds, lay the seeds out on a baking sheet and brush the loaf with a little water. Gently roll the loaf into the seeds before laying the dough on your prepared couche. Roll the sides up to keep the loaf(ves) from spreading and losing their shape. Cover dough with the remaining length of couche and let rise until doubled in bulk again, about 45 minutes.

Roll the dough off the couche onto a peel or a flat baking sheet (used the bottom  side of a half sheet pan) and bake in a preheated 450°F oven and bake for 40 minutes.  If you are using a baking stone, transfer the loaf(ves) to the stone using a peel bake at 450°F for the same 40 minutes. When done, the bread should have be a light golden brown and should sound hollow when thumped. Place the loaf on a rack to cool. Let cool thoroughly before slicing.

This recipe made a nice golden-yellow, dense sandwich-style bread. As with any recipe, it serves as a good starting point. We would have preferred lighter, airier bread and will keep making adjustments until we get it just the way we like it. You should too.