Sometimes, my dreams inspire the recipes I write. Sometimes, they’re inspired by the dreams of others:
Though this tweet is almost five years old, it popped up in my mentions less than two weeks ago, likely thanks to some sort of higher power (or an algorithm). How else can you explain me being called into the service of humanity right before Mardi Gras, with a directive to somehow combine gumbo and carbohydrates into one glorious creation? I was 1,125 miles to New Orleans, I had a full bag of flour, a half a pack of sausage, it was dark, and I was wearing sunglasses. I was on a mission from God.
I knew that good gumbo starts with a good, dark roux: melted fat cooked with flour, low and slow, constantly stirred until it turns a rich chocolate brown. Thinking about melted fat made me think of one of my favorite (and, appropriately, pre-Lenten) foods, lard bread, and I immediately knew that gumbo bread would need to be its spiritual cousin. A little bit of lard in bread is a damn good thing, but it does have its limits since it can inhibit the formation of gluten, which gives bread its structure. To get a range of dark roux flavor that could permeate the whole loaf of bread, I toasted an entire cup of flour in a dry skillet, some to mix with the lard and some to use in other parts of the recipe. (Bonus discovery: When I made roux with lard and my pre-toasted flour, it reached dark brown within 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes, so I’ll be keeping a container of this stuff in my pantry from now on).
When it came to figuring out the filling, I had to first figure out what exactly gumbo is. It is soup, and soup is, both literally and figuratively, fluid. You can get loosey-goosey with some of its elements; you might prefer meat instead of seafood or a gumbo so thick that your spoon stands straight up in it. I was certain that no matter what I chose to put into this bread, millions of Lousianans would consider it the wrong choice. That is why I called my friend Ken Wheaton.
Ken has been my go-to Cajun expert ever since I fell in love with his book The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival, set in rural Louisiana. Gumbo in particular is a subject Ken routinely rants about without any sort of provocation. If he could coach me through my recipe development process, then anyone who had a problem with the bread’s bona fides could blame him instead of me. And according to Ken, no matter what “those fancy TV chefs say,” gumbo absolutely, positively must not contain any sort of tomatoes. So, if you are a Cajun who is furious that there are no traces of tomato in this bread, you can take it up with Ken—and if you demand tomatoes be included in some fashion, add two tablespoons of tomato paste alongside the garlic and okra.
Speaking of okra: I am aware that this is a divisive ingredient, because it is slimy when cut. That slime is key in thickening gumbo when it’s a soup, but would it be necessary for a gumbo bread? I say yes, because okra, when prepared correctly, does not need to be slimy. Pick the smallest pods you can find and cut them quickly with a very sharp knife. Once you throw them in the pan, cook them a bit so they give up some of their sliminess, and then smother them in toasted flour. It will end up making a flavorful binding that will hold all the filling together and keep it from falling out of the bread when sliced.
So I had the roux, the garlic, the okra, and the holy trinity of onions, celery, and green bell pepper that seems to be mandatory in every Creole dish. Next came the meat. In lard bread, this is chunks of cured meats like prosciutto, or any crispy bits of pork that are left over during the lard rendering process. Ken said tasso ham or smoked (“NOT RAW!”) andouille sausages would work well, but if I wanted a truly authentic Louisiana taste, I should try to get my hands on some wild duck. If your local market carries packages of duck leg confit, grab one and throw it in. Mardi Gras only happens once a year, you know.
When rolling this bread up, don’t be precious with it. This is not a fragile pastry dough! Bash that filling in with your hands, squeezing and slapping and batting the dough around to make yourself a nice, cohesive loaf that’s structurally sturdy enough to hold as much filling as it can. Who cares if it looks a little sloppy on the outside? It is bread filled with gumbo. Nobody cares what it looks like.
I baked this, as I do with all breads, in my large oval Dutch oven. It results in a beautiful, crusty loaf and is worth the effort, provided that you also own a large oval Dutch oven. If you don’t, just bake it on a hot baking sheet and keep your eye on it. As always, food is done when it’s done, especially when we’re talking about the wonky, unpredictable heating of a standard home oven.
This might not be the muffin that Helen had initially dreamed of, but I daresay it’s better. And unlike a muffin for one, gumbo bread demands to be shared, because it’s so delicious that you’ll want to bask in the adoration of those who are lucky enough to snag a slice. (Remember, if their reaction is anything shy of adoration, you can tell them to take their problems up with Ken Wheaton. I’m just a poor little city girl who is trying the best she can.)
- 3 Tbsp. lard (if you prefer, you can use shortening or vegetable oil)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, for toasting
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 Tbsp. active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1 Tbsp. Creole seasoning (like Tony Chachere’s), plus additional for seasoning
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 small green bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 6-8 small pods okra, minced
- 3/4 lb. finely chopped smoked andouille sausage, duck confit, tasso ham, or a mixture of the three
Add one cup of flour to a large skillet over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the flour is a chocolatey brown, between 3-5 minutes. Pour into a bowl; do not clean the pan.
Put the skillet back onto the stove and add the lard. When melted, add 1/2 cup of toasted flour and stir, cooking for another 30 seconds to make a deeply colored roux. Add to the bowl of a stand mixer with the untoasted all-purpose flour and the bread flour, stirring lightly to help it cool down quickly.
In a measuring cup, stir together the water, sugar, and yeast. Let sit until foamy. Pour into the mixer bowl and affix the dough hook. Turn the mixer to medium-high speed for 5 minutes, stopping occasionally to make sure there’s no bits stuck to the bottom of the bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of Creole seasoning and mix for another minute—the dough should have formed a smooth, shiny ball. Remove the dough hook, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and then place it somewhere warm for 45 minutes until the dough doubles in size. (I like stashing it in the oven with the light on.)
Heat another tablespoon or so of lard in the skillet, then add the meat(s) and cook until crispy. Move to a platter and spread out to cool. Add the onion, pepper, and celery to the hot skillet; cook for about 10 minutes or so, until most of the water has been cooked out of them, then add the okra and garlic and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in enough toasted flour so that the vegetables are dry and separate from each other easily, then add to the platter that’s holding the meat, again spreading out to cool completely.
Once the dough has risen, plop it out onto a lightly floured board (if you have enough toasted flour left, use it!). Roll the dough out to a thickness of about 1/2". Scatter the meat and vegetables over the dough (you can go all the way to the edges), then press them down well to make sure they’re firmly embedded into it. Skim the top of the dough with your palm, collecting any bits that come off, then find empty spaces where they can be inserted. Begin tightly rolling up the dough, again pressing firmly as you go, then crimp the edges and tuck them under. Roll the loaf around for a bit to make sure it all sticks together, then place on a sheet of parchment at least 18" wide. Shape into a loaf the size and shape of a small football, then cover loosely in plastic wrap and let sit on the counter until doubled in size—about 45 minutes.
Right after you shape the loaf, put an oval Dutch oven into the oven, resting its lid beside it on the rack, and preheat to 450 degrees. (If you don’t have a Dutch oven, you can bake this on a preheated pizza stone or Baking Steel, and if you don’t have either one of those, you can bake it on a regular baking sheet that’s been preheated for only 10 minutes. Note that the baking time will be different than the one given in this recipe.)
When the bread has risen, use scissors to trim the top and bottom off the parchment paper, creating a perfect bread-sized sling, and fill a glass with 1/4 cup of water. Using oven mitts (and being very careful), move the Dutch oven to the stovetop, then gently lower in the bread, letting the parchment hang over the sides. Pour the water into the pot and quickly cover with the preheated lid, then put back into the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Use an instant read thermometer to check the bread’s internal temperature: If it reads between 190-200 degrees, it’s done. Remove from oven, and let cool in the Dutch oven (lid off) for 10 minutes, then remove the bread to a cutting board and allow to rest at least 15 minutes more. Serve warm or at room temperature.