Pesto Pain d’Epi
Everybody travels differently – we all have different sites we want to see, preferred levels of accommodation and comfort, budgets and agendas. When Mike and I travel, we both enjoy playing the tourist and seeing landmarks, but more importantly we like to soak up as much of the local atmosphere as possible – we take public transportation and walk rather than cab, dine at local eateries, sample the street food (okay, that’s mostly me and not so much Mike), visit a few Ma & Pop type boutique stores (perhaps also still me), buy a sampling of local goods that the area is famous for (definitely all me and NOT Mike), purchase presents and knick-knacks for close friends and family (okay….seeing a Tina trend going on here….) and so forth.
Huh. Okay, so we tend to vary a little bit in our travel styles. I get ready for a trip as follows *:
- Read travel books, pillage the internet for recommendations, and poll friends and acquaintances until I have confidence that I’ve done due diligence and researched everything (EVERYTHING) adequately.
- Have a carefully planned agenda. Budget additional time for delays, line ups and transportation between areas. Block in all daily activities.
- Book everything in advance.
- Print out all travel lodging details and confirmations – keep two copies, one in the luggage liner and one in the carry on.
- Print off all maps, directions to get to and from all activities booked into the itinerary, and pack an emergency phrase book.
- Double check all lists including the “To Do”, “To Buy” and “To Pack” lists. Ensure everything has been crossed off.
- Try to keep luggage within the airline’s maximum quotas, no matter how hard this may be.
* And yet, you should see my bedroom which looks like it was ransacked by a troupe of frat-boys on Speed. I like to think of this as one of my ‘delightful eccentricities’.
Mike travels a bit differently:
- Surf the internet independently, accept up to 5 recommendations from peers and acquaintances.
- Have a general idea of some things that would be good to do.
- Book lodging for the first night. After that, who knows where you’ll be?
- Scrawl down address of that first hotel/motel/hostel on a piece of tatty paper and put in pocket.
- Buy a Lonely Planet.
- Lists are for the feeble-minded.
- Throw a pair of jeans, a few shirts and a toothbrush into an overnight bag. Try not to forget underwear.
Planning our vacation together has been an exercise in patience and compromise for both of us. Mike caved and let me book in a rough days-per-city along with accommodations. I promised him that I would bring no more than 4 pairs of shoes (Technically I’ll have 5 since I’m bringing my runners, but since they’re active shoes and not walking or going-out shoes I don’t think they count). He hasn’t interfered with my fact finding missions and determination to at least dog-ear the places that we want to go in each city. I have agreed not to set up a rigidly militant itinerary of must-do-immediately-and-we’re-already-late! style tasks. See? Compromise.
It’s stressing me out enormously. We leave in four days.
Anyway, I decided to take my mind off of the inevitable panic of not knowing how we’ll get to the hotel from the airport, train tickets that aren’t booked, and not being able to manifest my typical clay-fist of control over the situation despite my inclination. I baked bread. The cathartic act of kneading and turning, kneading and turning, always puts my mind just a little bit more at ease. The tension that builds in my spine and brings my shoulders up to ear level can travel down through the arms to be released into the welcoming, supple dough. I tell you, next to a bottle of wine and a hot bath, baking bread is one of life’s great relaxations.
Many people think of baking bread as time-suck, and indeed it can be depending on your technique, but to make a good, honest loaf of bread is usually only about 10 minutes of active work and a little bit of patience (or distraction) as you let the yeast take it’s natural course. Because we’re going to France I wanted to make a French-style bread loaf….but without all the fuss of sponges, rafts and a two day rise. An easy solution was to make Pain Epi with a regular yeast dough.
The word ‘epi’ in French refers to the flowers of the wheat stalk, and Pain d’Epi is so named because the bread is shaped to resemble a stalk of wheat. It has a rather dramatic flair and makes a beautiful presentation as a hostess gift or on your brunch table. The best part is that it’s so utterly easy to make, without a lot of fuss, yet you will ALWAYS receive high praise and compliments on it’s aesthetic. Truly. As someone who is a total sucker for external validation, trust me when I say that this loaf will reap the rewards of oohs and aaaahs from far and wide because it’s just do darned pretty.
Epi is traditionally made with the same dough as a French baguette: it has a crisp crust and soft, slightly chewy, tender crumb. The main difference between Epi and Baguette is the way that the dough is formed. A baguette is usually patted flat and then folded in three (or rolled) to encourage a vertical rise, and the ends are patted and formed into a round. A batard is also the same dough as a baguette, but usually a bit shorter and with tapered ends. All of these breads are heated in a steam-oven, which just means that they bake at high heat with a significant amount of moisture in the oven. Some chefs spray the inside of the oven liberally with water before the bread goes in and then every 5 minutes or so, but there are easier solutions than that which actually tend to yield better results – and a lot less effort.
As for the pesto? Well, what could make a wheat stalk lovelier in the springtime than a bit of verdant green? Nothing. Oh, and also – I still had the last of my 2008 pestos in the freezer and figured it was high time to make room for the inevitable batch in 2009. You know, a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B……
Pesto Pain d’Epi
Makes 1 very large loaf
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 cups warm water *
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4.5 cups all purpose flour + more to sprinkle **
- 3/4 cup pesto ***
* I always go on about warm water, but this is important! Warm means ‘slightly warmer than body temperature, akin to a luke-warm bath, but not uncomfortably hot if you were to be submerged for a long period of time.” Think more tepid than hot, because you don’t want to kill off the yeast just yet.
** Bread flour has a higher gluten ratio than All Purpose, which means that it yields a chewier, more toothsome loaf. That’s great, right? Except that I always forget to buy bread flour, which means that I can tell you with all the confidence of a home-baking hack that All Purpose is generally…well, all purpose indeed.
*** Home made is usually better, and particularly when it comes to pesto. I make massive amounts of pesto in various flavors, and then freeze them in ice cube trays to be used throughout the year. If you don’t have any home made pesto, well, the jarred stuff certainly won’t kill you 😉
Pour the warm water into a medium sized mixing bowl along with the honey. Sprinkle on the dried yeast and give it a stir to make sure that the honey is blended in and the yeast isn’t just floating along on the surface. Let this rest for about 5 minutes until the yeast blooms or froths out.
Add the olive oil and salt to the yeast mixture. I always marvel that something so simple, with only 4-5 ingredients, can be so delicious. God bless that daily bread of ours.
Measure the flour into a large mixing bowl and form a bit of a well in the middle. Pour the liquids into the well and start stirring until the dough comes together.
I have a Kitchenaid stand mixer at home which I love more than I love Mike’s cat (he was ‘my’ cat this morning until he jumped up on my lap, farted, and darted off again. Now he’s Mike’s cat. And hey, my stand mixer NEVER farts in my lap. Such is my logic on that one). If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, you can make the bread dough directly in there by mixing for about 3-5 minutes until it all comes together in a ball, and then kneading it out for a few minutes on your table.
However, despite my affinity for that lovely mixer o’ mine, stressful times call for mixing and kneading by hand. It’s less about the effort than the experience and solitude sometimes.
If you use a stand mixer than you probably already have a dough ball that can be pulled off. If you’re doing this by hand, gather up all the dough and pat it into a rough ball shape. The dough will likely be just slightly sticky, so dust your work surface gently with a bit more flour and turn the dough onto your work surface.
Knead the dough for 7-10 minutes until the texture becomes smooth, elastic, and supple to the touch.
Lightly oil a large bowl and turn the dough around inside until it glistens all over. This will prevent it from drying out as it proofs (read: rises).
Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a clean tea towel and leave it to rise in a warm and draft free place for 1.5 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Punch down the dough by turning it out of the bowl and onto your work surface, and kneading it several times to get most of the air out.
Roll the dough out into a large oval, about 15″ x 12″. It should be about 1/4″ thick, like a pizza crust. If the dough is resistant to being rolled out and it keeps springing back to it’s previous shape, leave it on the board to rest for 5-10 minutes. When you try again you’ll likely have better success.
Smooth the 3/4 cup of pesto evenly along the rolled out bread, leaving a scant 1/4″ border around the edges.
Roll the dough like a jelly-roll, and place it seam side down on your board. Pinch and twist the ends to seal them shut.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place your bread on top.
If you have a particularly large oven and restaurant-style baking sheets, you could probably leave this bad boy flat. If, however, you are a home cook with limited space, you will probably want to form the dough into either a ‘C’ or a slightly curved ‘S’ shape to make sure that it fits on the sheet with room to expand as it rises.
Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and leave it to rise again for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until it has almost doubled in size.
Now comes the fun part!! To make the characteristic wheat flower shape, get a pair of clean kitchen shears and gently hold one end of the bread, being careful not to squeeze or push it down. Measure about 3″ down from the tip and snip through the dough on a 45º angle until you’re about 1/4″ from the base. Make sure not to cut all of the way through, you want the leaves to be attached to the main stalk. Cut a second incision slightly further down (about 1.5″) so that you have a bready appendage which is still attached.
Take the pointed tip of the piece you just sliced and lay it out on a 45º angle to the first one. Measure a few inches further and cut again, but this time twist the nub over to the other side. Repeat, alternating sides, until the bread is laid open.
Now tell me, seriously, if this isn’t just the prettiest darn thing that you ever did see. Sigh.
While the dough rises, prep your oven. Place your racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and set the temperature to 425ºF. About 5 minutes before you want to tuck the bread in the oven, fill an 8″x8″ baking dish about half full of water and put this on the top rack. Shut the door and give it a few minutes to heat up before you put the bread in there. When you’re making a baguette (or epi) you want a very hot, very moist oven. Tucking the dish of water in will create steam which will help the bread to rise rapidly and also create a nice crust.
From this point forward, be very careful when you open up the oven door because you don’t want to be hit by a wall of steam. A little bit of steam has the charming merit of giving you a mini-facial from the comfort of your own home. However, a heaving gust of face-melting oven steam, like you’ll have here, is slightly harder to embrace. I know, I know, I sound like that stupid cartoon dog who wears a fireman’s helmet, but OHS should always be top of our minds at home as well as at work. If you have pets or children, make sure that they aren’t around when you’re opening and closing the oven door. Always stand to the side of the oven door and not directly in front of it, and make sure to wear protective oven mitts that cover your entire forearm before reaching into the oven, because STEAM BURNS. Please be cautious and prepared.
(Apologies, this is what you get when someone in HR writes a recipe. You should hear me go on about motorcycles, those tiny machines of death.)
If you have a clean spritzer container filled with water, spritz the top of your Pain d’Epi with a little bit of water. If you don’t, sprinkle a bit of water overtop before tucking it into the oven.
Bake the bread for about 28 – 32 minutes, or until the top is a rich golden hue and the edges have started to brown.
To test your bread for doneness, tap it gently on top with your knuckles. It should have a slightly hollow sound. A better test is to turn the bread over and rap on the bottom, but I always consider doing that and then decide it’s too much effort to flip over a scorching hot loaf of bread, test it, and flip it back. Such is life.
Let the cooked loaf rest and cool for at least 1/2 – 1 hour before cutting in.
I am completely and utterly unable to resist the allure of freshly baked bread with chilled butter. Gaaaaaah……a tiny puddle of drool has started to drizzle it’s way down my chubby chin. If only all life had as much joy as warm, buttered, homemade bread.
The wheat stalk appearance of Pain d’Epi makes it perfect picnic or brunch food, because guests can just tear off a leaf and go on their way. However, if you were a bit risk-averse when cutting the leaves of the wheat then it will probably be hard to pull them off. No worries, you can always just cut on an angle where each leaf branches off and separate after by hand.
The thing is, the pesto swirl in this Pain d’Epi is just so bloody gorgeous that I didn’t want it to be lost by tearing off chunks…so I made Mike cut it into slices. After all, this way I keep a clean conscience (“No, Master Baker, I would NEVER slice an Epi!!), AND get to enjoy the serpentine swirls of savory, garlicky pesto that wend their way through the loaf. Oh yeah, that’s what it’s all about.
Looking at it cut, do you really blame me? Do you?
If you’re not familiar with making home made bread, it can seem a bit daunting at first. All that mixing, kneading, rising, proofing, and so on and so forth. But you see here, a delicious, tender and chewy loaf of home made bread is easy to make without a lot of fuss and bother…and it doesn’t have to take 3 days. You have a minute or two of mixing, knead for a little while, and then just wait.
Bread lets you know that it’s okay, you can tackle that mountain of laundry that’s been eyeing you malevolently for the last week or so. It will be right here when you get back. Bread pats you on the head and says, “it’s okay. You’ve done well, that’s enough for now – go rest and watch reruns of Grey’s Anatomy. I’ll see you when I see you.” The best part of all, is that bread lures you in with dulcet promises and whispers of, “People are coming over tonight for dinner…do you want to be a star? I CAN MAKE YOU A STAR….” but then instead of forked tongues and the selling of one’s soul, the only price you have to pay is in a few cups of flour and a bit or patience….nature takes care of the rest.
So! On that note, I have a belly full of pesto bread and I’m going to waddle downstairs to look at my vacation planning lists. Perhaps I’ll make a few more lists about the things that were not captured on my previous lists, and then I should probably itemize them into a unified spreadsheet to track task completion. Hey, whatever – say what you want but it’s a choice of lists versus 3 fingers of scotch. I’m willing to try the first before I resort to the second…….