Monday, December 19, 2011

Sweet Olive Oil Bread: A Holiday Tradition

From Provence to California: An Adopted Traditional Holiday Bread
This version of a traditional holiday bread from the Provence region of France is incredibly versatile and simple to make. It has a rich satisfying texture, yet has no dairy products. The key to its signature flavor is extra virgin olive oil - a lot of it. Although it's a Christmastime tradition in Provence where it is known as pompe à l'huile, I've been making this bread in different seasons throughout the year since 2007 when I discovered the recipe in Saveur magazine. The traditional way to make it is with orange flower water, but I make it as a savory bread to serve with special dinners. In this recipe I added fresh herbs from my garden: rosemary, thyme, and lemon thyme. The fresh herbs gently perfume the bread and pair well with the flavors of the holidays. You can experiment with whichever herbs you have available.

Basic Tips for Making Olive Oil Bread
The recipe uses a semi-liquid starter called a poolish, which is a mixture of water, flour, some sugar and yeast, that is allowed to ferment to give the bread a unique flavor. The following recipe makes one 12 inch round disk-shaped loaf that bakes in 15 to 20 minutes. My instructions may appear to be long but they're not complicated. I've included my tips so you'll get off to a good start and be able come up with your own variations.

Ingredients for Olive Oil Bread
  • 3 3/4 cups flour (unbleached all purpose type; you can use a combination of whole wheat and white flour. )
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 (7-gram) package active dry yeast (or 2 1/2 tsp)
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (this can be reduced to 1/2 cup with good results)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs (leaves picked and finely chopped) rosemary, thyme, or lemon thyme
  • A sheet of parchment paper for baking (can be found in most grocery stores near the waxed paper) 

Step 1: Make the Poolish

Make the poolish: put 1 1/2 cups of the flour, plus the sugar, yeast and 1 cup warm water into a large bowl. Beat well with a wooden spoon until smooth and silky. Let sit in a warm place until bubbly and foamy, at least 30 minutes. The poolish can sit for a few hours if desired. It gets surprisingly puffy, so make sure your bowl is large enough.

Step 2: Make the Dough and Let it Rise

Add the remaining flour, 3/4 cup oil, and salt to the poolish gradually, alternating the flour with the oil while you stir until a dough forms. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. It will  feel very moist and oily, but avoid adding too much additional flour. The finished dough should be oily but not stick to your hands. This is when you add the fresh herbs, if using. Sprinkle the chopped herbs onto the surface of the dough and knead them in until the herbs have been incorporated into the dough evenly.

Grease a large bowl with a bit of olive oil, place the dough inside and cover with the towel. Place in a warm spot until approximately double in bulk. The magazine's recipe allows 2 to 3 hours rising time, but I found that’s not necessary.  I often make an accelerated version that I let rise  for only 1 hour- this works had has a nice texture. The key is to make sure the poolish has risen well before making the dough.

Step 3: Shape and Bake

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  After the dough has been allowed to rise and has doubled, gently turn it out onto parchment paper that you have placed on a baking sheet. Gently stretch and shape the dough with your fingers to form a disk about 12 inches in diameter. Using a small knife, cut out four to five slits about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide radiating out from the center of the loaf, like a sand dollar design.  Bake the scraps as a little chef’s bonus or decorate your loaf by shaping the scraps into leaves and attaching to your loaf. You can also add walnuts or pecans by pushing them into the surface of the loaf.

Cover with the towel until the oven is at temperature, then remove the towel and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Be careful to watch the time- it bakes quickly and will puff up and start to turn a beautiful toasty brown.

Step 4: Enjoy!

Remove from the oven and immediately brush the top and sides with some hot water to steam the crust for a nice texture. Place on a wire rack to cool a bit. Serve warm if possible, or store well wrapped in plastic and heat it before serving. And by the way, it's a tradition to tear off pieces at the table rather than slicing the loaf. (But we discovered that it makes a decadent treat for breakfast when it is sliced and toasted then served with butter and jam.)

This recipe is very forgiving and adapts well if you want to reduce the amount of sugar or oil, vary the types of flour, or the rising times for the poolish or the dough. I routinely make a double batch to get 2 loaves, or I make smaller loaves to share. Other variations I've tried are adding fresh basil in the summer, and even lavender flowers.

If you try it I please let me know your comments: did you enjoy it? would you try it again? what variations have you tried?

Photos: Patricia Larenas, UrbanArtichoke

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