The art of making bread

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Nick Roumel

I have a friend who owns a bakery. He once told me that making bread is not so much a science as it is an art. He explained, with some frustration, “I can make it with the exact same ingredients, in the exact same way, but it will never turn out the same way twice.”

And so went my own bread making venture. I do not make bread often – and when I do, it is hit or miss. But in browsing one of my Greek cookbooks the other day, such a pretty picture caught my eye – a rustic loaf of Olive Bread – and it didn’t look that difficult to make.

Oh, but there were procedural traps for the unwary. Let’s start with the olives. Yes, you can buy them already pitted, but the quality is nothing near an authentic, plump Kalamata olive that never went through the torture of an automatic pitting machine. (In Greece, they are sold marinating in actual olive oil. In America, they are almost always in brine unless you can find an excellent specialty store.) That means you have to pit them yourself.

I began by winging it, slicing each olive lengthwise and trying to wiggle out the pit. That was slow and messy. Finally I looked it up, and the preferred method (if you don’t have a home olive pitter) is to whack those puppies with the broadside of a chef’s knife. The pit is fairly easy to sneak out, and the olives remain reasonably whole.

The second pitfall, so to speak, was the flour. The recipe calls for bread flour but I was two cups short, so I used Indian Atta flour to supplement.
This is milled specifically for Indian flatbreads, and ground in such a way to remove most of the gluten. The result is a very dense final product that doesn’t fluff up the way commercial bread does – especially in a non-yeast bread such as this one – and also is a bit crumbly to slice.

It was also a beast to work with, and I ended up adding double or triple the liquid called for, as I kneaded the dough. Then once in the oven, it wasn’t even close to being finished at 50 minutes, or 60, or 75. I finally took it out at 90 minutes, and even then it could have baked more in the middle. This may have also been partially due to my choice of pans – a heavy, Le Creuset oval Dutch oven, which baked the bread beautifully with a choice bottom crust - but took forever to do so, giving me lots of bonding time with my cat while I did crossword puzzles and napped, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, waiting for my olive bread.


Classic Olive Bread (“Eliopita”) Greek Meze Cooking,

Sarah Maxwell

Preparation time: about 30 minutes plus resting (LOL)

Cooking time: about 50 minutes (ROTF)

Ingredients:

6 1/2 cups bread flour

1 TBS baking powder

pinch of salt

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup olive oil plus extra for greasing/basting

1 TBS dried mint

1 onion finely chopped

12 oz. olives, pitted, rinsed and dried

*(optional) 1 egg yolk, beaten, to glaze (*I used olive oil which worked great)

Directions:

1. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center.

2. Pour the water into the well with the olive oil, dried mint, chopped onion and olives. Stir well with a wooden spoon to make a stiff dough. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead the dough for at least 10 minutes until smooth and soft (add more water and olive oil in a
3:1 ratio during the process as necessary). Return dough to the cleaned bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rest for about 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°.

3. Turn the dough out once more onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead and shape into a 9 1/2 inch ball. Lightly oil a 10 inch deep oval ovenproof dish and place the dough in it. Bake for about 50 minutes, brushing the surface of the bread with the beaten egg yolk (or olive oil) 15 minutes before the end of cooking time. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before serving.

The finished product, by the way, was delicious. There is nothing like warm bread out of the oven, and I ate so much my stomach ached. I think it would be paired nicely with a sheep’s milk cheese like feta or manchego, or Greek dips such as tzatziki, chickpea spread, and melitzanosalata (eggplant).

Or just hang it in an art museum.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with NachtLaw, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor.

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