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Tuesday’s Project: Pane all’ Olive, Jim Lahey’s Olive Bread

Jim Lahey, the brilliant baker and founder of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery and its sibling pizzeria Co., you would think would have a ridiculously complex recipe for his signature bread. Listening to some of the foremost boulangers in Paris and reading their recipes for baguettes, and hearing a master pizzaiolo from Naples talk about the care that goes into their crust’s preparation is enough to make you throw up your arms and concede to never attempt to bake again.

I’m not Eric Kayser or Chris Bianco, but maybe one day I could be. I don’t have a 200 year old brick oven for the baguettes and I’m not particularly interested in starting my own sourdough starter from scratch. I save the massaging in the kitchen for tense cuts of meat, not to soothe a rambunctious pastry dough for profiteroles.

Several Thanksgivings ago I searched for an olive loaf recipe, knowing that my family tends to look the other way at bread, but can’t stop eating anything with olives. For them, it’s about the olives and the olive oil for dipping. Who needs the bread?

Lahey’s recipe from his 2009 book My Bread stood out to me for its incredible simplicity. No sourdough starters. Just one overnight rise and smaller rise 12-18 hours later. No kneading! Just four, maybe five ingredients.

How is this possible?Well it is, and this bread is absolutely spectacular. In fact, my most recent loaf was by far and away the moistest version yet to emerge from the small heavy pot you bake the bread in. Lahey mentions how the salty brine of the chopped Kalamata olives lends enough salinity to the bread that there is no need for additional salt. He is dead on with that assessment.

All you need is bread flour, chopped and PITTED (don’t even think of trying this like I did once with pits in the olives) olives, yeast, water, and some wheat bran or corn meal (I use corn meal) for dusting the dough.

Stir the dry ingredients together and add the water in about 3 batches for a wet, sticky dough. Then let it rise overnight. Wasn’t that easy?

Now the “hard” part. The next day, scrape the edges of the dough to the center and form a ball. Then trans far the ball of dough to a wheat bran/corn meal dusted tea towel and fold it up for the second rise. Lahey says for 1-2 hours, until the dough doubles in size. I would highly recommend waiting the full 2 hours. Then the dough has a lovely silly putty texture, soft with some give when pushed, but not a watery mess that can’t stay together.

When the dough is ready, pre-heat the oven and put your small sized heavy pot, or in my a case a casserole dish you might cook braised short ribs in, into the oven for a warm up.

The only dangerous part of the recipe comes from transferring the dough from tea towel to the hot pot. Yes, the pot is hot as things generally are from the oven. Be very careful, don’t burn yourself. It’s hard for the dough to not make a slight mess at first in the pot, so have a spoon ready to make the dough sort of resemble a ball again. I’ve found that the dough often auto-corrects itself in time.

Bake 30 minutes, then another 15 minutes with the top removed. And there you go. My most recent loaf needed about 5 minutes more in the oven after the 15 minutes to achieve the right “chestnut” color Lahey writes about in the recipe. Sometimes I’ve undercooked the bread and the center is somewhat soggy. This time, the center has the right structure: moist, not soggy, far from chalky.

Not too bad for a bread recipe? Four ingredients, two rises, zero kneads?

Two notes to pass along. Lahey writes that the bread is inspired from Roman baking. This is certainly not a focaccia recipe, as it’s much moister and rustic. This is certainly not sourdough either.

Also, do sample with different types of olives, as long as they are PITTED. Lahey’s Kalamata recommendation is terrific. I’ve had great success with little Niçoise olives and even oil cured, sundried black olives too. Don’t go for green Castelvetrano olives as there isn’t enough of a salty brine in them.

And sample around by possibly adding herbs or nuts, maybe some rosemary and walnuts with the olives?

Or, just enjoy this very simple, yet very special olive bread as just plain olive bread. That’s how I serve it many times a year.

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