"ABOUT SPONGES: A sponge is a 'head start' that gives yeasted breads a good flavor, a light texture, and a crackly outer crust. To make a sponge, a small proportion of the basic ingredients of the bread are mixed together with some of the yeast to form a batter that rises slowly before the remaining ingredients are added to complete the bread dough."
Fig & Walnut Bread
*makes 2 round loaves*
FOR THE SPONGE
3/4 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups bread flour
3 tbsp whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups dried figs, stems removed, coarsely chopped, and soaked in hot water for 1 hour
2 1/4 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing
2 tbsp honey
2 tsp salt
1 cup broken walnut pieces
1) To make the sponge, combine the water and milk in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the liquid and stir to dissolve. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the bread and whole-wheat flours and beat on medium speed until smooth and thick, about 1 minute. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand for 1 hour.
2) Drain the figs, pat dry, and toss with 1 tablespoon of the bread flour; set aside. Add the yeast, oil, honey, salt, and 1 cup of the flour to the sponge and switch to the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Beat in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the bowl sides. Switch to the dough hook. Knead on low speed, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time if the dough sticks, until smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes. Transfer to an oiled deep bowl and turn to coat. Cover loosely with plastic and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2-2 hours.
3) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board. Pat it into a large oval and sprinkle evenly with half the figs and walnuts. Roll up the dough, pat again into an oval, and sprinkle with the remaining figs and nuts. Roll the dough up again and knead a few times. Divide the dough in half and shape into 2 tight round loaves, gently pulling the surface taut from the bottom. Place on the prepared sheet at least 4 inches apart. Cover loosely with plastic and let rise until doubled in bulk, 45-60 minutes.
4) Place a baking stone on the bottom oven rack and preheat to 425F. Using a thin, sharp knife, gently slash each loaf with a shallow X. Place the pan on the stone and reduce the oven temperature to 400F. Bake until the loaves are golden brown, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely.