Monday, September 13, 2010

Olive and Thyme Bread

One very interesting thing about baking bread is that you don't really need a lot of yeast when making it. Time is much better at making a really great loaf of bread than tons of yeast. With time you get good fermentation, and FLAVOR is developed. This is the reason behind the bit of yeast started the night before in this recipe, it's a pre-ferment... a flavor booster.

The problem is that people usually don't want to take time- they want what they want and they want it done NOW. Sadly, this can sometimes lead to inferiority in one way or another.

Beautiful purple-black olives.

Fermentation is the anaerobic (without air) conversion of sugars and carbohydrates to acids and alcohols. So... without fermentation beer would be yeasty/hoppy water, wine would be grape juice, pickles would be cucumbers, and yogurt would be milk.

Black tea, chocolate and vanilla wouldn't be what they are either...

Sourdough has a lot of flavor because of the fermentation that has taken place, and because of the production of lactic and acetic acids. Since it is so acidic, "bad" bacteria is prevented from forming. Some sourdough cultures go back a long time- there are some in San Francisco that are more than 150 years old.
Starters needs to be fed, used, and attended to- but they could theoretically last forever.

Personally, I have not had much luck with making my own sourdough starter. I should probably try again, but the problem is that it takes time... and you don't know until a couple of days after you've started that you've actually failed.

Tip: to take thyme leaves off the stems, it's easiest to pinch a stem and run your fingers backwards (against the growth of the leaves) from the top to the bottom. Zip.

Much easier than pulling the tiny leaves off one by one!

This recipe is somewhat based on a recipe from Bread: From Sourdough to Rye by Linda Collister.

It's great with a glass of wine or as part of an antipasto tray.

Olive and Thyme Bread
makes 1 medium loaf

The night before:

1/4 t active dry yeast
1 T AP flour
1T whole wheat flour
2/3 c tepid water

Mix yeast and flours and add water. Stir to combine, cover with plastic wrap, let sit at room temperature 1 hour and refrigerate overnight.


In the morning, remove the yeast mixture from the refrigerator, set aside and let sit at room temperature about 2 1/2 hours.

2 c AP four
3 T whole wheat flour
1 T kosher salt
2/3 c + 2 T tepid water
1/2 t active dry yeast
pinch of sugar

1 scant c good quality black olives (like kalamata), halved
3 t fresh thyme, stripped from the branches

Mix yeast and sugar with water, cover and let sit at room temperature about 15 minutes.
Mix the flours and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the reserved yeast and water from last night and the yeast and water you just mixed. Work the mixture together with your hands to make a soft dough. Depending on dough consistency you may have to work in a little extra flour. However, you do not want to add too much flour.
It may be sticky, but if you are willing to take the time to "work" the dough to add air to it you don't need the amount of flour you might normally use in this instance. If you are willing to work with it, you can pick up the dough at least a 12 inches above the surface you're working on, slap it down, and turn it onto itself quickly. This may take 10-15 minutes. The dough should be soft and spring back when poked lightly with a finger.
Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 2 hours. Punch down the dough, place on a lightly floured surface, and using your knuckles, shape/punch into a rectangle about 16 inches long and 6 inches wide. Sprinkle the olives and thyme down the middle of the dough and fold the sides to enclose the filling. Pinch the seam closed and gently roll the dough with your hands to make a sausage about 2 feet long.
Lift the dough onto a large baking sheet that has been greased well or covered with a sheet of parchment paper. Make sure the seam is facing down and shape the dough into a ring. Pinch the ends together to close the ring. Either cover the ring with a large bowl or place the pan in a large plastic bag. Let rise in a warm place about 2 hours.
About 1/2 hour before it is finished rising, preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Place a roasting pan inside the oven on the bottom rack to create a steamy atmosphere. Uncover the ring and slash it lightly with a razor (a baking razor) or a sharp knife. Put the pan into the hot oven and bake until it is brown, crisp, and sounds hollow when tapped underneath (8-15 minutes depending on the oven). Cool on a wire rack and eat warm.
The bread is best within 24 hours, or it can be frozen for up to a month.


  1. Hi Natalie,

    Is that really neat looking tool a baking razor? I've never seen one before, where did you get it? I thought I had all the gadgets there were (or at least knew about them), but I have been stumped. :)

  2. Yes, it is (well, it's really called a lame). I bought it 12 years ago... and I know I ordered it... I think from King Arthur Flour. Moisture is able to escape while bread expands artistically in the oven without splitting in unpredictable (and understandably UNSIGHTLY)jagged tears.
    This would be the tool behind the signature look of baguettes.
    I'm not perfect at it, and I need to keep working at it!
    Since the blade so thin it's fairly easy to slash through the dough without it dragging. However, a nice sharp knife will also do the trick.

  3. Have the same little gadget over here and well... must admit that I haven't used it since I first received it from King Arthur Flour 10 years ago. Sigh. I remember using this tool on "someone's" famous Cuban Bread recipe and afterwards, realizing I had some major practicing to do. :) Seeing it in your photo above, and then reading Peklet Mom's comment above makes me think I might just have to try using it again!

    After I find it...

  4. The other one (the second photo with a stainless steel tool- sort of like a metal spatula without a handle) is a bench scraper (if anyone is wondering). I think it's very handy to have. It's great to scrape a ball of dough from the counter, clean a counter of any bits of sticky dough and flour, help take a stubborn pie crust or "roll out" cookie dough off a counter, and portion out pieces of dough (rolls, scones, etc.)

  5. Very neat, thank you. I'll put both of the tools on my list of birthday wishes for this year. :)

  6. Natalie's blog is a work of art: she writes well, she composes well, the photos are excellent and - most important - all is high quality cooking, something that can be and should be re-produced. Thank you for this blog, and (again): this will be a great cook book, a resource for all people who like to eat and think well.