I’ve been making this bread for decades, and it never fails to look beautiful and taste delicious. I strongly suggest that you make a double recipe, either making one large loaf, or two smaller loaves. You’ll be glad you did! The original recipe can be found in Deborah Madison’s delightful book, “The Savory Way”.
Braided Olive Bread
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
10 ounces green Sicilian olives (use the strongest-tasting you can find)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup organic whole wheat flour
Approximately 3 cups unbleached organic white flour
8 whole green Sicilian olives, as above, for decoration
1 egg, beaten
Warm the milk, water, and sugar until warm to the touch (a bit warmer than body temperature). Stir in the yeast and leave it until it foams up a bit. Some yeast packets aren’t very foamy, but a little island of paleness will show up after about 10 minutes…and that’s enough!
Next, remove the pits from the olives. I do this by laying a large chef’s knife on top of an olive and giving the flat of the blade small *thump* with the heel of my hand. This loosens the pit enough to pick it out of the olive’s flesh. Chop the olives into pea-sized pieces. You need to end up with a cup of chopped olives.
Once the yeast has shown signs of life (a bit of foaminess, or that little pale island), stir in the chopped olives, olive oil, salt, and whole wheat flour. Stir until a batter begins to form, then begin adding small amounts of the white flour until the dough is stiff. This is where things become a little flexible: different flours, the yeast, even the weather, has an effect on how much flour it will take to create that stiff ball of dough. So take it slow and have fun watching your dough develop. When you have a ball of dough too stiff to handle, cover the bowl with a clean cloth, and let the dough take a little rest break for about 20 minutes or up to 3 hours. During this resting stage, gluten development begins, and simple sugars start to form as starch is broken down. Although it may look like nothing is happening, you’ll notice the difference as soon as you handle the dough because it will have become smoother and elastic.
Once the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured counter or table and begin kneading. The olives will add a few bumps to the dough, but you’re still aiming for a smooth, even consistency. I knead for about 10 minutes, but again it depends on the flour and how everything is coming together.
Film a bowl with olive oil, and roll the dough ball around a little so that it has a film of oil, too. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth or plastic wrap and place in a warm—not hot—spot to rise.
Once the dough has doubled in size, anywhere from an hour to and hour and a half, punch it down and divide it into three equal parts. Roll each part into a rope about 22 inches long (if making a single loaf. Twice as long if making a double-sized loaf.). Each rope should be about 3/4″ wide. Braid tightly, then form the braid into a spiral with the edges of the dough just touching, tucking the ends underneath.
Set the braid aside to rise again. If you’ll be using a baking stone, rise the braid on a peel dusted with cornmeal. If baking on a baking sheet, place the braid directly upon the sheet. Cover the braid with a clean towel, return it to its warm place to rise, and wait another hour or so.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, with the baking stone, if you’re using one. Break the egg into a small bowl, and whisk. Refrigerate.
After the braid has risen, brush with some of the beaten egg, and push the whole olives into the braid at juncture points of the braid. Slide the bread onto the hot baking stone or place the baking pan in the oven. After 15 minutes, brush more egg onto the newly exposed surfaces. Continue baking for another 45 minutes, or until the bread is nicely colored and has reached an internal temperature of 180-200 degrees (using a Thermapen-type thermometer, shake the pan slightly and use a towel to lift the bread up on its side. Then poke the thermometer into the underside of the bread.). Let the braid cool on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
My favorite food and wine pairings for this bread is feta cheese and a Chianti, or as the bread accompanying a roast chicken. Bon appetit!