I could live on bread and cheese. With apples and grapes thrown in. During the summer, the hottest weather (my favorite time of year, the hotter the better) that’s what I eat a lot of the time – some kind of bread, cheese sometimes, grapes and apples, water with ice and maybe some lemon. Sourdoughs are my favorite breads, but I’m still learning how to make an actually sour sourdough (I’ve used all kinds of starters and made good breads – they’re just not sour).
Several years ago I found a recipe for an olive bread that was made in a ring shape and may or may not have had thyme in it. I can’t remember. What I do remember is that it sounded heavenly and I made it several times before giving up. The bread refused to rise. Sometimes it refused to cook. There’s something impressive about dough that refuses to finish in an over that’s over 400 degrees – how can it just refuse to bake? How is that even possible?
When I got tired of playing with the recipe and was still longing for something like it, I played around and developed this one. It’s never failed me and offers up a substitution of a rosemary bread without olives if you choose. The rosemary bread is good toasted, or not toasted and with butter, or without butter but with cheese. The olive bread is fantastic just the way it is.
2 cups all purpose flour + ½ cup reserved
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 package yeast (not rapid rise)
1 cup very warm water
1 cup chopped or sliced Kalamata olives, drained (black olives are also good)
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
In a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour with sugar, salt and yeast. Mix together and make a well in the center.
Stir in the cup of warm water, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and clings to itself in a sticky loaf.
Turn out onto a floured board – I use the reserved flour to flour the board in order to measure how much flour I’m adding to the dough. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how the dough feels, and add flour by judicious handfuls if the dough is too sticky. Dough should be just damp enough to stick to the fingers but go back to itself rather than sticking in chunks to your hands. If it seems to be getting to dry, just keep kneading on one of the less floury sections of board – it should absorb the extra flour and become supple and smooth again.
Place dough in a clean, greased bowl and spin it so all sides are greased. Cover with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place. First rise will take approximately 45 minutes at high altitude.
When dough is doubled in size, move it to a scraped and re-floured board and gently punch it down. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Shape the dough into an oval, patting it to about 3/4 –inch thickness with your fingers. Cover the surface with the chopped olives the way you’d cover dough for cinnamon buns. Snip the thyme leaves or pull them from the stems, dropping them along the olives.
Roll up to form a long baguette, tucking the ends under. This can rise on a baguette pan, which are usually perforated to allow heat to get through at all angles and create a lovely crunchy crust, or on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, preferably without sides. Allow to rise until double.
Bake at 425 25 to 30 minutes. Check the loaf at 20 minutes and cover if it’s browning too fast. Spraying the loaf or the oven with water when the loaf first goes in will create a crispier crust (avoid the lightbulb at all costs – I once made one explode doing this and had to start all over after cooling the oven and cleaning out all the broken glass). Or brush the loaf with a whipped egg white.
The rosemary alternative substitutes finely chopped rosemary leaves for thyme and leaves out the olives. It bakes the same, though almost always has an egg white glaze and some rosemary leaves (or are they called needles?) decoratively arranged. The rosemary version is wonderful with barbecued or lemon-stuffed chicken.