Learn how to make epi bread also known as wheat stalk bread. This elegant looking loaf is perfect for any holiday table and each piece is easily broken off into individual rolls for easy passing around the table.
Have you ever heard of Epi Bread aka Pain d’Epi, or wheat stalk bread? I only just recently learned about it last year in school, but I am kind of obsessed with it. I love this bread so much for several reasons.
One, because it looks so nice sitting on a dinner table. It seems impressive and can almost be a centerpiece all on it’s own. It also resembles a wheat stalk. Mine does less so than others, but being from Kansas- “The Wheat State,” I have a special place in my heart for anything resembling this humble grain.
And lastly, I love this bread because there is no need to cut it up into portions. Each person can just break off a link and they have their own crusty dinner roll. Epi bread is perfect for a gathering!
Traditionally, Pain d’Epi is made from a classic french bread recipe. Basically, it is a baguette that is cut in a way that resembles a wheat stalk. This is good news, because the makeup of french bread is essentially one of the easiest around.
In it’s most basic form, the ingredients for french bread, which include just yeast, water, salt, and flour, are all thrown together and kneaded at once.
For this particular recipe, I am going to make a “sponge” first just to up the flavor of the bread a bit. This step really is optional, but I find you will get much more depth of flavor if you do make the sponge. A sponge is basically a preferment of the dough. Some of the flour, water, and yeast are combined and will sit for about an hour before the rest of the ingredients are added and kneaded.
This gives the yeast time to wake up and feed. This fermentation time will give a lot of flavor to your epi bread and also lend to a better texture for your final product.
For the bread Sponge (Preferment), part of the flour is mixed with all of the water and part of the yeast. This sits in a warm place covered with a clean towel for about an hour.
Once the sponge has fermented for an hour, the rest of the ingredients are added to the bowl and kneaded. You can do this in the bowl of a stand mixer with a hook attachment or you can do this by hand on a clean work surface if desired.
Once the dough is smooth and elastic it is ready to rise. IF you want to skip the preferment, you can just start at this step, combine all ingredients, and knead. This is known as the straight dough method.
Add the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and knead until smooth and elastic. This should take about 5 minutes at medium speed. I also added some fresh rosemary to my bread to change it up a bit.
The kneaded dough is then placed in an oiled bowl and covered loosely. Allow the dough to rise for about 45 minutes, or until double in size. If you used the straight dough method and did not make the sponge, it may take a little longer for the dough to double in size.
Once the dough is done rising it is time to shape it. On a clean and very lightly floured work surface, cut the dough in half. This recipe make 2 loaves that are about 15″ long. Cut a piece of parchment paper to about the length of your sheet pan so that you can gauge how long you can make the loaves without making them too long. You could also make 3 or 4 smaller loaves if you prefer.
Working with one piece of dough at a time, gently press the dough out into a rectangle.
Starting at one long end, fold the dough in half and pinch shut with your fingers.
Take the other long side and fold in half, pinching with your fingers to create a seam down the middle.
Now continue repeating this process, folding one side to the middle and pinching and then folding the other toward the middle and pinching again, until your loaf is the length you want it to be.
Gently move the shaped loaf, seam side down onto your parchment paper that has been sprinkled with cornmeal or some flour to prevent sticking. I like cornmeal because it gives the bread a little texture on the bottom, but either will work fine.
To cut the dough and create the wheat stalk look of the epi bread, take clean scissors and make cuts starting from the bottom and working your way up. Hold the scissors at a 45 degree angle and cut about 3/4 the way through. Lay the cut piece to one side and then continue cutting up the loaf laying the next piece to the opposite side. Be extra careful not to cut the dough all the way through.
You may make small cuts to have more pieces, or large cuts. Think about how big you want each piece that is pulled off to be. I made mine fairly large, getting in about 8 cuts per loaf. But you could shoot for 10 or 12 if desired.
After the loaves are shaped you can sprinkle them lightly with flour if desired. This gives them that rustic artisan look after baked. If you want a more pretty shine to the loaf you can brush it with oil or an egg white wash. Let the loaves sit and rise for a bit while you preheat your oven and baking sheet.
Preheat the oven with the baking sheet inside on the middle wrack. On the bottom wrack, also preheat a dutch oven or cast iron skillet. When you put the bread in, you will put a cup of water in this skillet and quickly close the door. This helps create a steam environment in your oven. Commercial bakers have steam injectors built in their ovens and this helps develop the nicest crusts. This is a way to sort of mimic that in your home oven.
Once the oven is good and hot, carefully slide the parchment paper with the loaves directly onto the preheated baking sheet and add a cup of water to the preheated skillet and close the oven. Do not open the oven to check on the loaves during at least the first half of baking. You want the steam to be trapped inside.
Let the loaves cool on wire wracks slightly before serving. As with all fresh bread, these loaves are definitely best served the day of.