Easy Olive Oil Bread

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Preparation info

    • Difficulty

      Easy

Appears in

Food of the Sun: A Fresh Look at Mediterranean Cooking

Food of the Sun

By Alastair Little and Richard Whittington

Published 1995

  • About

Ask people which bread typifies the Mediterranean and they may answer focaccia or, on reflection and looking east, pitta. Perhaps the oldest known yeast-raised bread was baked in Egypt 1,500 years ago. A similar flat wheat bread, aish, is still a staple there today and is produced using the same primitive wood-fired brick ovens that make real pizza such a treat in Italy.

Baking is one of those things most of us prefer to leave to professionals and, in many cases, we are right to do so. Domestic ovens will not bake perfect baguettes, but this should not preclude making focaccia and pizza yourself - if you have a food mixer with a dough hook, they are really easy to produce at home. You can also make this dough with a food processor, though the results will not be as light. If you do, then put all the dry ingredients into the processor bowl and, while working at full speed, add the olive oil through the feeder tube followed by the warm water until the dough balls. Knead by hand for 5 minutes after processing, then proceed in the same way.

The kind of flour you use will materially affect the quality of your bread. You want a flour with a high protein and gluten content; both of which contribute to the texture of the bread, delivering a crisper crust and making it lighter by assisting even distribution of air throughout the loaf. High-protein flours need less kneading and, usually, less liquid when making the dough, and are closer to the durum wheat used in making pasta. Some of the best wheat for bread comes from Canada, where it contains an average 14 per cent protein content compared to home-grown wheat, which is closer to 10 per cent. Britain used to import a lot of Canadian flour, but restrictive EC tariffs have unfortunately put a stop to this on any significant scale and, as a consequence, white flour produced here is much softer than it used to be. This is true even of flours which are described on the packet as ‘strong for bread baking’. Health-food shops are the kind of place you may find Canadian flour, or they might listen to your request and find a supplier. Summon the manager in your local supermarket and make your feelings known on the subject. Write to his or her head office. Come to think of it, have you ever seen a female manager of a supermarket?

This recipe makes an incredibly versatile bread dough which can be stretched and pulled for pizza or focaccia, put to rise in loaf tins for a light airy bread, or rolled for wheat flour tortillas or Arab-style pocket breads. It is also very forgiving when baking and can be cooked successfully at 220°C/425°F/gas7, though best results are achieved at 250°C/475°F/gas9. When baking bread, spray a little water into the preheated oven to give a steam lift and help produce a crisper crust - but be quick... the temperature of a preheated domestic oven drops very rapidly when the door is opened.

The recipe specifies 900 g/2 lb flour, though you may make it with half the amount. If you do, it is vital to halve the quantities of yeast and oil as well as flour. However, the dough does work better when made in larger amounts. Two pounds of flour is not expensive and in any case does not go all that far. Once made, the dough will keep in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator for two to three days, but needs to be returned to room temperature before it is pulled or rolled out.

Ingredients

  • 575 ml/1 pt hand-warm water
  • 1 sachet (1 kg/1 tbsp) of instant yeast (we use Sainsbury’s)
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 900 g/2 lb strong white wheat bread flour, plus more for dusting

Method

Preparation

Put 550 ml/18 fl oz of the warm water in the mixing bowl, together with the yeast, salt, sugar and oil.

Using the dough hook and starting at a low speed, pour the flour into the liquid and work for 6 minutes. If the dough is not holding and is pulling apart in strands, add more water and increase to a higher speed, working for a further 2 minutes until elastic.

Turn off and push the dough with your fingers. It should be quite springy and a little sticky. If too resistant to the touch, turn on again, add a last tablespoon of water and work for a minute.

Turn out on a floured surface and knock into a ball. Put this into a bowl large enough to allow it to treble in size and brush it with olive oil. Cover the top loosely with cling film and put to rise in a cool but draught-free place. Excessive heat should be avoided as this will force the dough and deliver a heavier result.

After 90 minutes to 2 hours, when the dough has risen fully, transfer to a heavily floured surface and knock down. It will be very moist, sticky and elastic when you take it from the bowl. Knead by hand for a minute. It is now ready to shape for whatever type of bread you want to make.

For focaccia (this amount will make 2 focaccia the size of Swiss-roll tins): divide the dough into 2 and fill the tins, pushing and stretching it to cover the surface to a depth of about 1 cm/½ in. Brush the surface generously with olive oil, cover with cloths and leave to prove for an hour before baking.

You can flavour the bread with rosemary or garlic by pressing them into the dough while stretching and pushing it into the baking tins. Alternatively, give the focaccia an Eastern flavour by scattering the top with chopped raw red onions, cumin, coriander and mint.

For pitta (pocket bread): cut the dough into 12 equal parts and shape into balls. Flatten with the heel of your hand, then roll on a floured surface into discs about 5 mm/¼ in thick. Dust lightly with flour and cover with a cloth. Leave to stand for an hour in a cool place to rise. Fold each disc in half and again roll to a round about 5mm/¼ in thick.

You can make an interesting variation by adding 1 tablespoon of honey to the mix before starting to knead the dough.

For pizza (this amount will make 3 Swiss-roll-tin-sized pizzas, enough to feed 12 comfortably): divide the dough into 3 and push the dough thinner; working from the centre, press the dough outwards until you have an even layer about 1 cm/½ in thick.

After its second proving in the tins, cover the tops with, say, chopped Oven-dried Tomatoes, anchovies, olives and a scattering of finely diced buffalo Mozzarella. Keep this topping quite sparse — the aim is a base with a crisp bottom crust, not a leaden pie smothered with too many things.

While the dough is proving, preheat the oven.

Cooking

For focaccia: bake in a preheated oven at 240°C/465°F/gas8-9 for 8-10 minutes.

For pitta (pocket bread): bake in a preheated 240-250°C/465-475°F/gas8-9 oven for 5—6 minutes, until puffed and tinged golden.

For pan-grilled bread: proceed as for pitta, but cook in a hot dry frying pan for 1—2 minutes a side, pressing down with a spatula as it cooks. This encourages the bread to balloon. This type of bread can also be cooked on a barbecue or grill, but a heavy pan delivers the best results.

For pizza: dribble olive oil generously over the surface and bake in a preheated oven at 250°C/475°F/gas9 for 8-10 minutes.

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