The occasional bread baker
Just the mere mention of a horoscope and my husband will just switch off. It produces better results than him plugging your ears and singing “la la la la la”. I could be saying the most intelligent thing he’s ever heard me say but if I randomly throw in a star sign, he’s already not listening. So I tend to keep it on the down-low that in my late teens I devoured astrology books, searching for the perfect combination of planets and ascendents that would lead this Scorpio to her perfect match. I thought it might be written in the stars, as they say, and wouldn’t that be a lot easier than, you know, stumbling through love like humans do.
At some point along the way, while I was in my second or third year of college, I came across something that associated my star sign with baking. Ok, it may have not been in these exact words, but to me, at the time, it basically said, You are a natural born bread baker.
I took my horoscope’s word for it. I knew I already loved baking pastries, cookies and cakes. In high school, I baked my way through one a cookbook of American pies. I had yet to attempt to bake bread, but somehow these words — that could have even been written on a fortune cookie, or graffitied on a subway wall that I happened to walk past — gave me a sense of confidence, like how I knew I’d end up moving in with the Virgo boyfriend but that things wouldn’t work out quite so well with charming but quirky Aquarius. After all, it was in my horoscope.
Now that I’ve grown out of my astrology phase (much to the delight of my husband), I am more realistic about both matchmaking and the instincts behind baking. Truth be told I can’t even remember the first time I made my own loaf of bread, but I know one thing — that bread making never intimidated me. Somehow that silly horoscope, of all the things that could repeat itself over and over in my head, has always stuck in my mind, building up my baker’s confidence and telling me I can do it.
One day, when I had just moved to Florence as a twenty year old student, my Danish roommate, Chanette, baked a batch of soft, fragrant buns. The smell of freshly baked bread immediately filled our cold, quirky old flat with a feeling of warmth and I was thoroughly impressed. I still am most impressed — and fascinated — by good, home-baked bread. Partly I think it’s because I don’t do it enough and I haven’t practiced it regularly enough to confidently prove that horoscope right. But I do like to think of myself as the occasional bread baker. I do love to bake — I love getting my hands messy, kneading, punching and dimpling, I love the process of waiting, rising, shaping. I love witnessing the transformation of the bare ingredients to a beautiful, delicious, baked thing. And so, every now and then, I make some bread. Sometimes, it’s just to warm the kitchen a bit on an extra cold winter’s day or keep a four year old entertained for an entire afternoon (what other activity is so incredibly satisfying that it can simultaneously do these things, plus get you halfway to dinner and tomorrow’s lunch?) — like with this pane all’olio, olive oil buns.
They’re from one of my favourite cookbooks, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.
I absolutely love baking from her book. She’s inspired me to make pantramvai, the most raisin-filled raisin bread you’ll ever find, Roman maritozzi with whipped cream, small round schiacciata (focaccia) with vegetable toppings and more elaborate projects like date and walnut panettone. Her method for making cornetti also influenced the recipe I used in my cookbook, Florentine.
Back to this bread. It’s perfect for the occasional or beginner bread baker; in fact, it’s so easy, a child can do it with you. And she might also make a stingray instead of a bun. But either way, it’s delicious. Soft and pillowy inside, but with a wonderful crust on the outside, they are wonderful on their own like a dinner roll (with a bit of a glug of olive oil over the top), or slice them in half and use them to make panini, filled with a favourite cheese or some prosciutto perhaps. They’re perfect for using for these smoked tuna and artichoke panini.
Olive oil buns
Makes about a dozen rolls
This is Carol Field’s recipe from The Italian Baker. It’s originally in US cups, I have it here in grams. The original calls for lard, which I love to use in bread making as it gives a great crunch to the crust and adds flavour, but you can use butter or substitute with olive oil. You can also easily halve this to make just one ring of 6-7 rolls, but know that these rolls can also be frozen once baked and cooled completely (so you may as well make the whole recipe). One thing I urge you try: seek out a really, really nice flour. Like, splurge. Think of it like a special Sunday roast — you may go to the butcher and get a really nice cut of meat seeing as it’s the main ingredient. Do the same here. Get a nice flour, don’t make this with just regular white flour — try to find something stone-ground, something unbleached, try it even with different grains like spelt flour.
- 18 grams of fresh yeast (or 1 sachet, 7 grams, of active dried yeast)
- 300 ml of lukewarm water
- 50 ml olive oil, plus more for brushing
- 15 grams lard, softened (or butter or olive oil)
- 500 grams unbleached flour, plus more for dusting
- 10 grams salt
- sea salt for sprinkling on top
I always make bread by hand, otherwise you miss out on half the fun.
Crumble the yeast (or sprinkle, if using dry yeast) into a large bowl with the water and let it dissolve. Stir through the olive oil, the lard (or butter), the flour and salt, and once combined, transfer the dough to a floured surface and begin to knead until smooth and elastic — 8-10 minutes should do it.
Lightly oil the bowl where the dough was mixed and place the ball of dough in the bowl. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap. If you want to bake this later, leave the dough to rise slowly in the fridge for 8-12 hours. Otherwise, leave the bowl in a warmish corner of the kitchen (like inside the oven with the pilot light on) and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2-2 hours and you should have a very silky, lovely dough.
Divide the dough into about 12 equal pieces and roll into balls. Arrange the balls in 2 rings on 2 separate baking trays lined with baking paper, leaving about 3-3.5cm between each ball. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warmish spot until doubled, about 1-1/2 hours.
Heat oven to 200C.
Brush the tops of the dough with plenty of olive oil and sprinkle some sea salt over the tops. Bake for about 30-35 minutes or until a caramel-coloured crust forms.