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


winedeb said...

That is so interesting how those little twists meld together to make one loaf! I see why then you just pull apart. I do have one question, you state the loaf is finsihed when you hit the bottom of the loaf and it sounds hollow. So do you pick up one end and tap? Reason for asking is I tap mine on the top and if sounds hollow I remove from oven. But a few times I have not been successful with this method and the bread is still not completely finsihed even though it sounds hollow. Advice?
I really enjoyed the history of this loaf also Amanda!

marisa said...

Beautiful bread and lovely tradition! I love the part about smashing the pomegranate too.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Winedeb, thanks so much! Isn't it a pretty loaf? Tapping on the bottom is much more accurate, so yes, I lift up my loaves. (using oven mitts of course!) And when in doubt, an extra 5 minutes can't hurt the bread either way.

Marisa, thanks. You know I think I might want to do the pomegranate part too - it sounds like fun!

Joanna said...

I love this ... I've made all our bread for the last three weeks, so I will try this in the next few days, and ask any questions I have then .. thank you SO much, it's lovely


Maryann said...

Beautifully braided bread. I can smell the aromatics from here. BTW Amanda, I had my fresh figs! Visited my mom and there on the counter were 5 little figs she picked from my uncles tree. She let me have all five. What a gift she gave me!

bea at La tartine gourmande said...

Adorable looking bread. Now if only it could be savored on one of these Greek islands. Makes me want to jump on another plane...

Figs Olives Wine said...

Joanna, I'm so impressed! Making all your own bread is tremendously satisfying but A LOT of work in my experience. Your house must smell divine. Thanks so much and let me know any questions.

Maryann, thank you and how fabulous! What a wonderful treat - I hope they were delicious! How nice your mom must be!

Bea, thank you and me too! It's so beautiful over there, that sometimes when I think about it, I can barely believe how lucky I am to have been!

swirlingnotions said...

Amanda . . . I did a double take when I saw this post. I just finished writing my first novel which takes place (partially) on Corfu, and which revolves (partially) around a wedding and is steeped in (completely) food. I felt like I was reading some of my own exposition. Thanks for the great recipe!

Rachael said...

that was just a lovely post. beautiful.

Ed Bruske said...

love wedding banquets, especially Greek wedding banquets

Mercedes said...

I've had breads similar to this but they usually are the saffron-anise variety. I like the multi-seededness with the coriander. Such a lovely tradition around the wedding, and I love how geographically specific it is. I'd love to go wander around those islands and see how the traditions vary from one tiny village to the next (you know, when I didn't have to actually work for a living :-))

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

This is such wonderful symbolism and tradition in a stunning loaf. I'm always looking for lovely breads. Excellent.

Cynthia said...

Such wonderful traditions and customs - I like weddings that uphold such values and customs.

Amanda, why couldn't you tell me about this bread before this evening... I know, I know, the wedding. :) I would have loved to make it for a blog event. Alas, I'm not sure I can make the deadline. I'm putting all the blame on you. :D

Nevertheless, I am going to try making it sometime soon.

Have a great weekend.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Swirling Notions, that's so funny! What a fabulous novel it must be. I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me know when it's coming out. Weddings, Corfu, food - sounds like my idea of heaven. How fun it must have been to write.

Rachael, thanks so much! It's lovely of you to say so.

Ed, they're such a great way to get a feel for a community, a cuisine, and a culture, don't you think?

Mercedes, in my village in Scotland, the accent was incredibly different from the accent in the village 4 miles down the coast. When I see variance that localized in existence today, it blows me away - culinary or otherwise. I would love to see all the celebratory variations in these wedding traditions from village to village too!

Mykitcheninhalfcups, thanks so much - so glad you like!

Cynthia, so do I! It was so much fun when I got married to try to incorporate my family's Anglican/ Scottish heritage with my husband's Italian heritage. I did some fascinating research on all the localized customs. Too bad no one in our backgrounds does the pomegranate smashing...I'd love that!! And darling, I wish I'd known you needed a bread recipe. I'd have sent it right over!

Anh said...

Excellent looking bread! My area is considered the Greek suburb of Mel, and they do sell very lovely bread... But I still prefer yours! ;)

Ehaab said...

I am definitely going to try this bread!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Anh, thank you! That must be such a great place to live! I love going out to Astoria - the food there is absolutely divine!

Ehaab, thanks so much! Please let me know how you like it. And if this is Ehaab from NYU, it's so great to hear from you, and I was just thinking about you the other day! Hope you've been well and stay in touch. xo

Loulou said...

My dream is to get to Greece on day, specifically to the Cyclades or Ionian Islands.
Reading about the traditions makes the desire to go even stronger.

Your bread looks delicious!

sognatrice said...

Ooh, I live on the Ionian! I can use this too then!

Great post--full of information, and wonderfully written. Brava :)

Gloria said...

So nice bread and this specially beautiful I was at a friend of mine and have bread at the ceremony, but yours really is so beauty. I love make bread!!! Gloria

Wendy said...

Fascinating post, Amanda. Loved hearing about Ionian weddings. :)
Very envious thinking about the pockets or international communities in NYC. So much to see!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Loulou, thanks so much! It's such a stunning part of the world isn't it? Hope you get to go soon too - I recommend off season. It gets chilly, windy, and wet, but you get so much more a feel for the region when it's just you and the locals.

Sognatrice, thank you! I'm really so glad you like, and I think you are absolutely entitled to this bread!!! Let me know how it goes.

Gloria, that must have been such a beautiful ceremony! I love making bread too - it makes the house smell like a proper home.

Wendy, thanks. You know I really should take advantage of that more, because when I do, I'm always so floored. Luckily I have a few Greek friends in Astoria. I also have a great friend from my class at culinary school who's taken me on fabulous trips to Chinatown for food shopping/ gorgeous meals. You really do need someone familiar with the inside track though, or you risk hitting the tourist traps.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I love this stuff! Tradition, Marriage, Fertility..such good stuff and such wonderful sentiments.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Jenn, I do too - I think we're all drawn to these themes at a very basic level. And traditions from this part of the world are ancient and poetic.

Lucy said...

So many weddings! They do seem to come in waves!

Bread scares me a little. Always has, but spiced this way, served in little conjoined twists, even I could try this. Brilliant. What a beautiful tradition. Just a technical question; how much do your packets of yeast weigh approximately? Or how many tea/tablespoons in each?

Figs Olives Wine said...

Lucy, as long as your yeast foams when you first let it sit in warm water, you have nothing to fear, I promise! I should have said what our packets here hold, and I'll add it to the post too. Sorry about that! Dry active yeast packets here in the States hold 1/4 oz. or 2 1/4 tsps of yeast. Please let me know if you need anything else!

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Figs Olives Wine said...

Jeena, thanks so much! I'm so pleased to hear that you like the site.

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