Greek Celebration Bread
Crazy, but true: I have been writing this here blog for three years today. A lot has happened in three years, and not just in the kitchen. I know I’ve said it many times before, but it’s true: When I first started writing here, I really didn’t know much about cooking at all. I’d always enjoyed doing it, but my technique left much to be desired. My favorite meal was rice and beans from a box, and I was so freaked out about raw shrimp I didn’t look closely enough to see that they weren’t de-veined before cooking them. I thought baking bread from scratch was Little House on the Prairie stuff, and I didn’t have the first clue that broccoli has a season.
In celebration of three years of cooking and writing and taking pictures of food, and learning my way around an oven, I decided to splurge this week and bake this lovely Greek Celebration Bread, from Reinhardt’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, as my weekly breakfast loaf. And it does feel like a splurge from my usual plain, whole wheat loaf. This bread is fragrant and tender and rich and really freaking fabulous.
The list of ingredients looks long, and the fact that it requires a pre-ferment might seem intimidating, but this bread is actually quite easy. I did the whole thing in one afternoon, but if you think ahead, you might want to make the pre-ferment ahead of time and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator. If you don’t want to think ahead, though, don’t worry about it. Just pick a quiet weekend afternoon for baking and you’re good to go. As the weather gets cooler and the skies get grayer, doesn’t the idea of sitting at home baking bread sound appealing, after all?
This photograph is deceptive, by the way. This loaf is almost as big as my head. Maybe even bigger, I didn’t exactly measure. I was worried that it was going to burn, because when I checked it halfway through the suggested baking time it was already golden brown, but it didn’t burn. Instead, it turned this rich chestnut color, and the crust is soft, but just a little bit shatter-y when toasted. I suspect these would make terrific rolls; if you choose to make rolls, you can probably halve the baking time.
The only not so great thing I have to say about this bread is that it isn’t really spectacular toasting bread. Because it’s so soft and light, it doesn’t stand up that well to the kind of natural peanut butter I eat, unless I soften the peanut butter in the microwave before spreading. It certainly tastes terrific with peanut butter, even if it does start to tear apart a little.
Greek Celebration Bread
Adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
- 1 c. poolish (recipe below)
- 2 1/2 c. (16 ounces) bread flour
- 1 tsp. (1/4 ounce) salt
- 1 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 tsp. orange extract
- 1 tsp. hazelnut or almond extract
- 2 large eggs, slightly beaten
- 1/4 c. olive oil
- 1/4 c. honey
- 3/4 c. whole milk
- 3 3/4 ounces flour (about 1/2 cup)
- 4 ounces of water (a 3/4 cup)
- 1/12 teaspoon of yeast (just use a pinch)
Start by making the poolish, at least three hours or the day before you want to bake the bread. Just mix the flour, water, and yeast together well, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. After three or four hours, it’s ready to use, or you can set it in the refrigerator overnight. Just remove it from the refrigerator an hour before you want to bake the bread so it has time to come to room temperature and wake up a bit.
When you’re ready to bake, mix together the flour, salt, yeast, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the poolish, the orange and nut extracts, eggs, honey, oil, and milk. If you have a stand mixer, you’re in luck! This will be way easier for you. Use the paddle attachment to mix the dough until it comes together, then switch to the dough hook and mix for about ten minutes. If you don’t have a stand mixer, use a wooden spoon, spatula, or a dough whisk to mix the dough, and when it’s started to form a ball, turn it out on a floured counter and knead for about ten minutes. This is the trickiest part: This dough is wetter and stickier than any dough I’ve worked with previously, so it was kind of hard to knead. I had to add probably another half cup of flour throughout the kneading process to keep it from sticking to everything in sight. But once you have a smooth, supple loaf, you can set it aside to rise.
Put the dough in a lightly oiled mixing bowl, cover with a towel, and set in a warm-ish spot to rise for about an hour and a half. It should double in size.
Once it’s doubled, remove it from the bowl and shape it into a ball (or boule). You want to kind of stretch the surface of the dough like you’re wrapping it around itself. (If you can, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Reinhardt’s book; he explains the process and reasons for all of these steps much better than I ever could.)
Set the boule on a parchment-lined baking sheet to proof for another hour. You want it to double in size again. Then preheat the oven to 350F. Bake the loaf for about 20 minutes, then turn the baking sheet and bake for another 20 or 25 minutes. Once it’s rich brown and hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom, it’s ready. Set it aside to cool on a wire rack before cutting it.
As you can see, I burned my slices a little bit this morning at breakfast. And you know, they still tasted really darn good. I definitely encourage you to bake this bread this holiday season, even if you’re kind of afraid of yeast. Especially if you’re kind of afraid of yeast. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last three years, it’s that you’ll never learn to cook if you don’t get in the kitchen.