I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in New York. Long thin loaves of Italian bread were a staple in my house. My mother would hand me a couple of dollars and send me around the corner to the deli to pick up a loaf whenever she made lasagna or spaghetti with delicious homemade sauce from my bisnonna’s recipe. The smell of the bread would drive me crazy all the way home, and my mom always saved me the heel of the bread. My school lunches were full of salami and provolone on this wonderful crunchy bread with a soft interior.
So when I found this recipe on Bakers Banter a few years ago, I had to try it. It’s great, but it’s not quite what I grew up with. The recipe says to braid it, although I don’t always do that. The loaves I always found in my local delis or even the meat market were never braided. I make it for my family before I make soup or spaghetti, and sometimes we make garlic butter to go on top and the scent fills the house. This is my favorite Sunday morning activity. I make the starter Saturday night, and then in the morning I knead the dough, let it rise, and then pop it in the oven, and it’s ready by the time my grandmother gets home from church.
Usually when I braid the dough it fits perfectly in my cookie sheet, but this time I stretched it out too much. It was already as long as my cookie sheet when it finished rising, and it always gets bigger during the baking, so I transferred it to the bigger one, but in transferring I stretched it too much more. Since it wouldn’t fit anymore, I twisted it into a ring instead. The braiding became less prominent because of the stretching and new shape. It still came out delicious though, and perfect with my French Onion Soup (tune in next week).
In order to make the bread nice and brown I like to put on the egg wash included in the recipe. Unfortunately I didn’t put in enough water with my egg white this time and ended up with some cooked egg white in the middle of my bread ring. Woops.
¾ cup flour (I used all purpose flour)
½ cup of water
1/8 teaspoon of instant or active dry yeast (I used active dry and proofed it first according to my yeast bottle)
2 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast (I used active dry again, and also proofed it)
2/3 cup of water (I just added a little water to my yeast and water mix from proofing until it equaled about 2/3 cup)
2 ¾ cup of flour (I used a mix of ¾ cup white all purpose flour, and 2 cups wheat flour)
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg white (just divide it up using the egg shell, like so)
1 tablespoon water
You can also add sesame seeds if that makes you giddy
For the starter simply mix the flour, yeast, and water together. Then, when they’re thoroughly mixed, leave them in a bowl, cover it with a dishcloth (just typing that makes my Italian soul hurt, to us it was always called a mopine). Leave it overnight or for several hours. Don’t refrigerate it, but do tell the people in your life not to disturb it. They’ll probably disturb it anyway.
For the dough there are several methods, all found on the original web page, but I used the manual method since I don’t have a bread machine, or even a lowly mixer with dough hooks or bread paddles. Or a mixer, period.
Move your starter into a larger bowl, proof your yeast, and mix it all together. I use a large plastic spoon to mix everything together. Mix until it’s sticking together and pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Pop it onto a greased/floured kneading surface and knead it. I use a stone cutting board that we never cut anything on. In order to keep my dough from sticking I spray a little oil onto it, then add some flour. I also flour my hands to ensure it won’t stick to my hands too much. (Spoiler alert: it sticks anyway). The recipe says to knead it for 5 to 7 minutes, but it all depends on how you like your bread. I’ve been making this recipe for several years, so I understand my bread. Just knead until you think your bread is ready, but go ahead and use the recipe times until you get to know your bread. It’s an close relationship.
Take your dough and put it into a big (big, BIG) bowl that you’ve lightly greased with spray oil and let it rise. After 45 minutes turn it over and squeeze out any major air bubbles. Then let it rise for another 45 minutes. It doesn’t have to be exact, but it should be approximate. The original recipe says you can also use a dough rising bucket, but I don’t have one, and all I can picture is putting my dough in the same bucket I use for rock salt or cleaning solution for muddy shoes. Gross.
Once your dough is risen, grease and flour the surface you used for kneading, and move your dough back onto it. I always knead it out a little more to get rid of air bubbles. Then, divide it into three pieces and roll each piece into a log. They can be whatever length you prefer, as long as they’re even. They can be a little sticky and a little difficult to roll, but keep going, I have faith in you. When you’ve got them all rolled out, braid them. I made a quick video of me braiding my loaf so you can see how it goes, but it’s very similar to braiding hair.
Music from Incompetech, find it here.
To start you press the top ends together, you’ll fold them under after the whole loaf is braided. I think you have to be a little more careful and precise when you’re braiding a loaf of bread than with hair because it’s much harder to go back and fix bread. Make sure you keep your braiding tight and right underneath the last piece. When you’ve got the bread braided, let it rise for another hour, maybe an hour and a half if you think it’s necessary. You could also join the ends of your braid to make a ring.
At this point preheat your oven to 425 degrees. While it’s preheating, brush the dough with your egg wash, and, if desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds. An egg wash adds a little flavor, and helps with browning. I forgot to do this until I had five minutes of baking time left, so I pulled the loaf out, brushed it on, and popped the loaf back in. It didn’t come out quite as brown as I’d hoped, but it was still delicious.
Pop it into the oven and let it bake for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on how good it looks at 25. You may need to add a little time. Let it cool for a while, and then nom at will. If you bake this, let me know how it comes out!