One thing I've learned about bread-baking is that the baker must adapt to whatever the dough has decided to do...but that it's really not a big secret how to make a good dough. It usually comes down to starting with a small amount of flour and adding more only if you need it (I usually do, because I live in such a humid place). Really good bread recipes will give you that small amount of flour to start with and advise you to add flour in small doses if necessary. I used to shy away from recipes that said anything about "adding more if needed," because I didn't trust myself to know if it needed it or not. But working through some of the stickier doughs in The Bread Bible, plus experiencing Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, has helped me relax more, and realize that stickiness can be a great thing. In fact, the smallest amount of flour you can get away with is usually what will turn out a tender, airy loaf. It is important to start with a good recipe, though.
The Bread Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum, is one of the best books I've ever read, period. It's a well-detailed encyclopedia of all sorts of breads, with historical notes; by-hand, mixer, or food processor versions if applicable; and a host of tips (each recipe is followed by a "Pointers for Success" bullet point and an "Understanding" section, in which you learn why you just did a certain maneuver, like soaking bulgur or cooking cracked wheat). I've read several bread books before, and they just rarely get any better than this. The pizza dough alone is worth the price of the book. This olive ring I made today is based on her "prosciutto ring" (one of the sticky doughs), which has little flakes of prosciutto kneaded into it and is brushed with bacon fat (!) before baking. Last summer, that prosciutto ring wriggled its way into our bleak, bread-starved lives. I love it still, but I really wanted to try an olive version of the same dough, with melted butter--a vegetarian version of the prosciutto ring, if you will. The dough is pretty quick to put together and get into the oven, compared to other artisan-style loaves. You can have the whole process done in less than 2 1/2 hours, with very little hands-on work if you have a mixer to knead it for you.
Above: After kneading seven minutes, the dough is way too wet, almost like a batter. I kneaded in 5 Tablespoons more flour, 1 Tablespoon at a time, and got this:
Kneading in the olives added more oil to the dough (even though I'd patted them dry), so I added yet another 2 Tablespoons of flour to keep the dough workable.
The stone and the pan.
This bread turns out extra-savory due to the bitterness of the olives, and is perfect for hummus, goat cheese, or dipping into a fruity olive oil. Of course, the eternal olive ring won't physically last forever. It will be devoured, possibly in one sitting by only one or two people, possibly still hot from the oven. But its memory will live on in your gastronomic heart, all the more so because you made it.
the eternal olive ring (based on "Prosciutto Ring" in The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum)
- 2 1/4 cups bread flour, plus additional if needed and for dusting
- 1 Tablespoon sugar or honey
- 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast (I use Fleischmann's Bread Machine Yeast)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 liquid cup water, at room temperature (70 to 90 degrees)
- 1/2 cup chopped green and black olives, patted very dry
- 4 teaspoons butter, melted
- 1/2 cup ice cubes
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, yeast, and black pepper (you can do this with a regular old whisk instead of the whisk attachment). Then whisk in the salt. Attach the dough hook, turn the mixer on low speed (#2), add the water, and mix for a minute, until all the flour is moistened (scrape down the sides if necessary). Knead the dough on medium speed (#4 on a KitchenAid) for 7 minutes.
- The dough should be sticky, but shouldn't stick to your finger if you touch it. If it's too wet, knead in extra flour, 1 Tablespoon at a time, until it's right. If it's not sticky at all, but is rather dry, spray it with a little water and knead it in.
- Add the olives and mix on low speed until evenly incorporated (you might need to add in a little more flour now if the olives are very oily). Dust the dough lightly with flour, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest for 20 minutes.
- Shape the dough and let rise: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and roll it around a little to lightly flour all surfaces of the dough. Roll the dough between your hands and the counter into an 18"-long rope, dusting with flour as necessary. Shape the rope into a ring, overlapping the ends by 2" and pinching the seams together. Transfer the ring to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (the ring should be about 7" in diameter). Oil a piece of plastic wrap and cover the dough with it, oiled side touching the dough. Let rise at warm room temperature for an hour, until doubled in bulk (the ring will be about 9" in diameter).
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven: once the loaf is shaped, set a rack in the lowest position and place a baking stone on it. Set a baking sheet on the floor of the oven under the stone (I use an old broiler pan for this--it's to hold the ice cubes). Turn the oven to 450 and let it preheat for about an hour.
- When the loaf is doubled, brush it with half the melted butter and slide it, parchment paper included, onto the hot baking stone. Toss the ice cubes in the baking sheet and immediately close the door (this produces steam and a great crust). Bake for 20 minutes. Turn the oven down to 400, slide the bread from the parchment directly onto the stone, rotating it a little as you do so, and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the bread is deep golden brown (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the bread should read about 211 degrees). When it's done, turn off the oven, open the oven door slightly, and leave the bread in the oven for 5 minutes.
- Remove the bread and transfer it to a wire rack. Glaze with the remaining melted butter and cool completely.
- As Rose instructs, tear this bread rather than cut it. The texture is eternally satisfying.