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Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Artisanal Olive Bread!

When you think of summer days gone by, do you think of the bygone days of your youth or, like me, do you think of food you've eaten and long for again? Recently, my daydreams about summer have been centered around the most wonderful Olive Bread I have ever had the good fortune to eat.

While visiting famiy in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia this summer, my cousins daughter made me a sandwich on olive bread that her sister in law had made. Wow! The crust was crisp and the bread moist and absolutely yummy, filled with kalamata olives. I couldn't help but be impressed. Who makes their own bread these days? And not just any bread, olive bread? I felt humbled and yes, even a little honoured to be sampling such wonderful fare. As I've noted many times before, a baker I am not. Baking is too precise of a science for me and well, mostly everything I've tried to bake has been a flop pretty much...until now that is.

Fast forward one month and for some odd reason, my thoughts became obsessed with that Olive Bread! It was rustic and quite obviously made by a craftsperson, a skilled bread maker, an authentic artisan. Could I replicate that beautiful bread? Could I, one who can't bake to save her life, make an Olive Bread that might vaguely resemble the wonderous creation I sampled in Cape Breton? And then I heard the words of the immortal Julia Child in my head: "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."

What's the worse that could happen? All you need to make an Artisanal Olive Bread is flour, active dry yeast, water and kalamata olives. I had plenty of flour, active dry yeast and water at my disposal and well, I was willing to sacrifice a cup and a half of chopped kalamata olives in the spirit of resurrecting that wonderful rustic Olive Bread. What the hell? I really didn't have anything to lose!

It's true, not all bread is created equal but you don't have to be an artisan, baker, foodie or even fully awake for that matter, to realize that tearing into a crusty, freshly baked loaf of bread is one of life's great pleasures. But what sets artisanal bread apart from other breads and why is it sometimes called artisanal and other times referred to as artisan?

Let's clear up the easy part first: artisan actually refers more to the craftsperson who makes the bread, (in this instance, moi!). Artisanal bread is the bread made by said craftsperson, ( this!). You might also be wondering if referring to myself in French is an indicator that artisanal bread is of French origin - yes and no. Of course there are French artisans who make artisanal bread but I'm tossin' 'moi' around simply because I'm getting my Julia on again, who also said, "Just speak very loudly and quickly, and state your position with utter conviction, as the French do, and you'll have a marvelous time!".

Unlike mass-produced commercial breads, artisanal bread requires a somewhat lengthy and traditional process, monitoring the dough closely like a protective parent, taking up to 24 hours for the dough to be oven ready. Other than how it's made, there's also a difference in taste between artisanal bread and commercially made breads. Mass produced breads require chemicals and high energy mixers to speed up fermentation. By contrast, the long fermentation process of this bread gives the dough up to 20 hours to develop, allowing the enzymes to react with the flour in their own time for a much more robust flavour and texture.

Artisanal breads are also much easier to digest too because the enzymes have had time to start to break down the gluten in the flour while fermenting. You can take time to savour it too because, as a general rule of thumb, the longer the production process, the longer the shelf life will be.

So, all that being said, let's get to the making of the bread. The requirements are few: flour, active dry yeast, kalamata olives, cool water, a warm spot for the dough to sit and develop for about 18 hours, (yup, you read it right, 18 hours, but trust's worth the wait!), a hot oven and either an enamelled cast iron pot with lid or enamelled earthenware dish with lid, similar to this. I actually don't have an enameled cast iron dutch oven but I am kinda hopin' Santa will bring me one this year. However, I do h;ave an earthenware, or clay, Dutch oven by Romertopf, which works the same way as the enameled cast iron except you have to soak it in water for 10 minutes before using, which keeps the bread from drying out. While researching how to make olive bread, I did come across an article about placing the dough on a pizza stone and spritzing it with water, but that seemed like A LOT of work to me.

This bread recipe is a no-knead recipe, just so you know. Not only did I want to make the best Olive Bread ever, but I wanted to do it without a lot of work. My inept baking skills are probably largely due to my overall cooking philisophy of 'no fuss, no muss', but I digress...on with the bread!

First step: In a large bowl, combine 3 cups bread flour with 3/4 teaspoon active drive yeast. Add 1 and 1/2 cups of pitted, drained and chopped kalamata olives. Next, add 1 and 1/2 cups cool water. Mix everything together using your hand or a large spoon. (I personally prefer the clean hands method...makes me feel like a real 'artisan'!). You'll end up with a pretty moist ball of dough that you couldn't knead even if you wanted to but fret not, that's the way it's suppose to be. Simply cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it somewhere at room temperature for about 14-18 hours, the longer the better if possible. After 18 hours, this is what my dough looked like:

See all those bubbles? They mean the yeast has done it's job. Place a large tea towel out on your work surface and sprinkle it liberally with flour or corn meal, which adds texture. I used both here but next time, I'll probably just use corn meal simply because I'm not a fan of the powdery appearance on the finished product from the white flour. On a non-stick surface, sprinkle a little flour. (I've used a pastry sheet here only because I have one, God only knows why, must've been a gift). Scrape the dough out of the bowl, and by scrape, I do mean scrape as the dough will still be quite moist, onto the floured surface. Fold the dough over a few times, liberally flouring both sides if its sticking and form the dough into a ball. Resist the urge to knead! This is a no-knead bread recipe remember?

Turn the dough onto floured tea towel, seam side down. (This is important...when you turn the dough into the baking dish, you want it to be seam side up so that the steam can escape creating big beautiful air bubbles ...we are making artisanal bread here afterall). Cover the dough with the tea towel and let it proof for another 2 hours.

After the dough has been proofing for about 90 minutes, turn your oven up as high as you can, which is 500 degrees Fahrenheit for my oven, and place the cast iron pot into the oven, minus the lid, to get really hot, for about 30 minutes. When the pot is REALLY hot, caerfully remove it from the oven and roll the dough in, seam side up. Place the lid on the pot and return to oven for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the lid and let the crust brown for an additional 15-20 minutes. Don't worry if the crust already looks brown after the inital 30 minutes - this is a really wet dough and it can take the heat! When the crust is a nice golden brown, let the loaf cool on a baking rack for an hour before slicing, (like any of us can wait that long!).

Tell me this loaf of Artisanal Olive Bread doesn't look freaking awesome! And the smell? there anything that smells better than freshly baked bread? Even if you're not a huge fan of olives, you won't be disappointed with this bread. Because there's no salt added, which anyone who bakes bread regurlarly probably noticed, the briny saltiness of the olives seeps out into the bread during the fermentation's seriously amazing!

The crust is crunchy and delicious, the bread itself is moist and every other bite or so there's a subtly briny pocket of flavour. Seriously folks, this bread will impress the heck out of everyone. I sliced a few slices of this bread and simply placed the loaf on a cutting board with a knife in the middle of the table with a little olive oil seasoned with oregano and feta cheese and it disappeared in a flash! I've also used it to make turkey sandwiches using leftover turkey, a little aged cheddar and roasted red peppers...seriously sophisticated grown-up sandwich hey? But even on it's own, fresh out of the oven with butter melted on doesn't get much better than that and I'm not alone in that thought:

"Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts!" - James Beard

This recipe is proof positive that slow and steady wins the race, hands down! Artisanal No-Knead Olive Bread...easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!

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