Friday, September 21, 2007
Ionian Wedding Bread with Anise, Fennel, & Coriander Seeds
As I’ve mentioned, I just returned from the wedding of two dear friends in Maine. And in less than two months, we’ll be celebrating another marriage within our circle of friends. So it may come as no surprise that, with all these festivities around me, I’ve been feeling a yen to bake this gloriously perfumed and symbolic bread – traditionally used in Greek wedding feasts. Ionian wedding feasts to be exact.
On the Ionian islands of Kerkyra (Corfu in English), Paxi (Paxos), Lefkada (Lefkas), Ithaki (Ithaca), Kefallonia, Zakynthos (Zante), and Kythira (Cerigo), which lie off the west coast and southern tip of Greece, a traditional wedding involves not just family and friends, but the entire community. Historically, children resulting from the new union were seen as a guarantee that the bloodline would endure, and so a wedding was celebrated as a regeneration of a family, of a town, of the nation, and of life itself.
When preparing the marriage bed, the bride’s relatives still often bounce a baby on the new sheets to assure fertility. In some communities, the groom further ensures offspring by smashing a pomegranate on the entryway of his new home before carrying his bride over the threshold.
At the wedding banquet itself, the whole community feasts together to secure a lifetime of bounty for the couple, and the celebratory bread is always baked so that it can be pulled apart without having to sever the loaf with a knife. This bread is packed with seeds (more fertility symbolism) from local wild herbs, including the auspicious anise, from which a tincture is also made to ease the pains of childbirth. The dough is divided into long ropes that are twisted together and formed into one loaf – perhaps a representation of marriage as it exists within and is supported by the community.
I first had this bread baked in a plain loaf form at a friend’s house in Astoria, which is home to a thriving Greek community here in New York. Though I show the bread baked in its traditional wedding shape, I often prepare it as a simple loaf or as pull-apart rolls for dinner parties. With its golden crust and soft, sweetly fragrant interior, it's just too delicious to reserve for feast days. I recreated the recipe with a bit of help from my friend and from Aglaia Kremezi’s The Foods of the Greek Islands, in which she credits the recipe to the island of Lefkada.
This recipe makes enough starter for 2 loaves, but unused starter chills or freezes well and saves you the trouble next time you feel the urge to bake bread.
Makes 1 loaf/ 16 servings
½ cup warm water
1 packet plus 1 tsp dry active yeast (in the States, a packet of active dry yeast holds 1/4 oz or 2 1/4 tsps of yeast)
6 ½ - 7 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp kosher salt
1 cup room temperature water
¼ cup plus more extra virgin olive oil
½ cup warm water
3 tbsp honey
1 tbsp whole fennel seed
2 tsp whole aniseed
1 tsp whole coriander seed
1 large egg, lightly whisked to combine
2/3 cup room temperature water
milk for browning the loaf
Make the starter:
In a small bowl, combine ½ cup warm water with 1 packet of yeast. Dissolve the yeast with your fingers and let bloom for 5 – 10 minutes until frothy. If no froth forms, your yeast is dead, and you must start over with a fresh packet.
Place 3 ½ cups of flour in a food processor with a paddle attachment. Add 2 tsp salt and turn on the motor. Pour in the yeast mixture and enough room temperature water to make a sticky dough. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes and then put the dough hook attachment onto the processor and process for 5 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl and form the dough into a ball. Turn once in the oil, cover with a damp cloth of some oiled plastic wrap, and put in a warm place to rise for 1 – 3 hours until doubled in size. Cut this dough – which is your starter - in half. The unused half can be refrigerated in an oiled bowl sealed with oiled plastic wrap for up to a week or frozen in a zip lock bag for up to 6 months. Just let it thaw and come up to room temperature for at least 4 hours before using.
Make the bread:
In a small bowl, combine ½ cup warm water with the honey and 1 tsp of yeast. Dissolve the yeast with your fingers and let bloom for 5 – 10 minutes until frothy.
Meanwhile, coarsely grind the fennel seed, aniseed, and coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
Return the starter half you are using to the food processor, along with 3 cups of flour, ¼ cup olive oil, the egg, the honey yeast mixture, the ground seeds, and 1 tsp salt. With the motor running, stream in ½ cup room temperature water to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. Add more water or flour if necessary to get the right consistency. Rest the dough for 15 minutes.
Process with the dough hook for 5 minutes more, until the dough is elastic. Lightly oil a large bowl. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to form into a ball. Tuck under the sides of the ball to create surface tension and turn once in the bowl to coat with oil before leaving in a warm place to double in size, smooth side up, under a damp towel or some oiled plastic wrap. Takes 1 ½ - 3 hours.
Punch down the dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into quarters and then divide each quarter into 4 more quarters so you have 16 equal pieces altogether. Roll one piece into a thin rope about 20” long. Fold in half and twist into a spiral before placing on the oiled baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the pieces, placing them against the previous twists and alternating thick ends and loose ends so that a rectangular loaf forms evenly. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let prove for 30 minutes in a warm place.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 F and lightly oil a baking sheet.
Remove the plastic wrap, brush the loaf with milk, and place in the center of the oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 F and bake for 30 – 40 minutes more until the loaf is golden and sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom with your knuckles. Transfer to a rack and cool at least 20 - 30 minutes before serving.
Wedding photo by John Ellar