*No, we haven’t hired servants, silly! I’m talking about bread.
Well, last night the HH and I returned from a pre-Canada Day junket to Montreal, where, along with the CFO and the Nurse and her husband, we took my dad out to dinner for his (you may wish to sit down) eighty-seventh birthday. Eighty seven! Much like George Burns when it comes to longevity (and, come to think of it, humor as well), my dad is one of those people who’s always eaten well and exercised daily (now, why wasn’t I lucky enough to inherit that body-care ethic?). All that, and he also looks great for his age, sporting a full head of hair (his own, I might note).
It was a lovely, albeit short, visit, with a brunch stop at one of my favorite Montreal restaurants, Aux Vivres, where the HH and I enjoyed smoothies, a “Plat Complet” (tofu scramble, tempeh bacon, salad, sweet potato wedges, and home-baked cornbread) and some amazing banana-chocolate pie to cap it all off. In dire need of a walk after all the grub, we squeezed in some alone time to take in a few beats at the Montreal Jazz Festival, then meandered along rue Sainte-Catherine for some window shopping. After dinner with friends that involved much chatter and clinking of wine glasses, we headed back to Toronto yesterday morning and arrived home in good time (only 5 hours!).
Because of my peculiar dietary restrictions in recent years, I’ve learned when traveling to always tote along a cooler of food whenever I venture into unknown culinary territory. This time, we lugged a veritable feast with us: leftover salad, bread, scones, and fruits from the previous week. And with bar fridges now standard in most hotel rooms, I was able to keep the stash relatively fresh until departure time, so we could once again partake of the cooler’s bounty on our way home. The best of which was Olive and Sundried Tomato Bread–baked by yours truly!
Now, many of you know that I have a dread fear of baking bread. Not only because I was diagnosed with candidiasis years ago and had to forgo the stuff (along with anything else that contained yeast, living or dead) for two full years. Not only because baking with yeast is an art as well as a craft, for which it sometimes takes years of practise to develop a true “feel” (as much as I like the idea of a machine, that isn’t “real” homemade bread to me). Not only because I was privileged to grow up in a house where we never once were served the soft styrofoam that is Wonder Bread; with an immigrant father and a Russian-descended mother, we had the real, peasant-stock, brown-as-clay, authentic stuff: dense, dark, moist and infused with with rye, molasses, and seeds. And (perhaps most especially), because my sole attempt at baking bread from scratch resulted in a loaf the top of which was so flat and heavy, it could have been called the Australopithecus of breads.
So you see, there’s a good reason why I’m a tad bread-bashful. But this past weekend, we savored the remnants of a loaf I’d baked the previous week–a loaf which was already number two in a series. I may not have overcome my yeast phobia just yet, but in the meantime, I’ve discovered an alternative that does a mean impersonation and is, in my opinion, maybe even better tasting. The recipe is a little less intimidating than yeast-based breads, and a little more foolproof.
Its secret ingredient? Beer! (Besides, it’s Canada Day today, and beer is just so. . . Canadian).
I’ve never been much of a beer drinker (unless you count that one starry-eyed lunch at the local pub with my mentor, when I naively attempted to keep pace with his more practised consumption. . . 13 beers later, I lost track of the number, but I do remember some fairly maudlin entries in my journal that evening). I have, however, been familiar with the concept of beer bread for quite some time. I first learned about this delicacy from the CFO way back in the 1980s, when she read about it in Bon Appétit magazine and immediately proceeded to bake a basic beer-based loaf (which she should have sold along with seashells down by the seashore, but that would have been one too many tongue-twisters in the same sentence).
I don’t know its origin, but beer bread is definitely considered a classic in the recipe canon by now. Since I use spelt in most of my baking, however, I decided to alter the generic version just a tad. Spelt is both more hearty and more heavy than regular all purpose flour, so I included some other full-bodied additions for more gustatory dimension to the bread, tossing in some chopped olives and sundried tomatoes, then sprinkling the top with rosemary. For the second incarnation, I added dried basil right into the batter instead.
And how did it turn out? As it happened, my friend the Eternal Optimist joined us for dinner that night, before she and I headed off to a movie (Sex and the City, finally; yes, the audience was entirely female, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and yes, I’m revealing my advanced age by admitting this). Along with a dinner of lentil-pistachio patties, raw kale salad, and spicy sweet potato “fries“, I served up some freshly baked olive and sundried tomato bread. Well, the EO couldn’t stop raving about it! With a moist, yeasty interior studded with salty, briny olives and chewy tomato, the bread provides a perfect balance between rustic and au courant. Though I’m not much of a sandwich lover, I could happily subsist on this bread alone.
With its dead-easy method and incredible final product, this loaf has eradicated my fear of bread baking. At the same time, however, it’s also eliminated any need to venture into yeast-based varieties. . . I’d be happy to consume just beer bread for the rest of my days. And even though I still have no desire to drink the stuff, each time I pour a bottleful into my bread batter, I feel just a little more patriotic.
Happy Canada Day, all. And to our American cousins, both literal and figurative–hope you all have a wonderful July 4th holiday!
Beer Bread with Olives and Sundried Tomatoes
This is a bread with substance, one that will fill your belly and satisfy your taste buds at the same time. Because spelt flour can dry out quickly, I stored this in a plastic bag in the fridge. If you don’t consume the bread within about 4 days, wrap the rest and freeze it for later.
1-1/2 cups light spelt flour
1 cup whole spelt flour
2/3 cups whole barley flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. sea salt
2 Tbsp. fresh chopped basil or 1 tsp. dried; or other herbs of choice
2 Tbsp. agave nectar
1/2 cup olives, pitted and chopped (I used a combination of black and pimento-stuffed)
1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, soaked for 5 minutes in hot water, drained and chopped
1 bottle (12 oz.) beer (use one you’d be willing to drink; beer may be the quintessential Canadian beverage, but I used Corona for this bread–it’s what the HH had in the house)
1 Tbsp. melted coconut butter or olive oil, optional
Preheat oven to 325F. Lightly grease a loaf pan or line with parchment.
In a large bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the herbs and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the agave nectar, olives, and tomatoes and stir just to coat. Pour the beer directly onto the flour mixture in the bowl, add the olive mixture, and then stir just to blend. Do not overmix (it’s okay if tiny lumps of flour remain here and there). The batter will be thick.
Turn the mixture into the pan and smooth to even the top. Sprinkle with more herbs if desired.
Bake in preheated oven 35 minutes, then turn the loaf a quarter turn and continue to bake for 15-25 more minutes, until top is dark golden and a tester inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean. If desired, before turning the pan and continuing to bake, brush with melted coconut butter or olive oil.
Cool at least 10 minutes before removing to a rack pan and slicing. The bread can be eated warm, but will be a bit sticky when sliced. This is great warm or at room temperature. Makes one loaf. May be frozen.