From the kitchen of One Perfect Bite...I am always drawn to holiday recipes whose roots can be found in regional or religious tradition. I was delighted when I stumbled on this bread which, in Provence, is part of the traditional le gros super, or Christmas Eve dinner. While this is a meatless feast, it is one that is rich in symbolism that has its core in the Trinity. In keeping with the Trinity, tables are set with three candles and three layers of tablecloths that have knots tied at the corners. The knots are to prevent evil spirits from using the cloth to make their way into the family. The cloths remain on the table for the three days of Christmas, and on Christmas Eve crumbs are left on the table to provide sustenance for the souls of ancestors, who are believed to visit the home while the family is at midnight Mass. The meal begins with a light soup that is followed by a fish course and vegetables that are flavored with aioli. There may also be a salad of bitter winter greens and a cheese course. However, the highlight of the feast is the les treize, a collection of 13 simple desserts. It's thought that the number symbolizes Christ and the 13 apostles. Tangerines or oranges and dried fruits and nuts accompany Pompe à l’Huile, a bread which is made with olive oil and scented with orange-flower water. While it sounds overwhelming, each type of fruit and nut is considered a dessert and the number 13 is easily reached. Some of the dried fruits and nuts are also symbolic, and almonds, hazelnuts, raisins and figs are called the four beggars, or les quarte mendiants, because their colors mirror the robes of mendicant orders. The type of fruits and nuts and candies will vary from one family to another, but the orange-scented Christmas bread will be found in all homes. Traditionally, the bread is shaped like a ladder that resembles fougasse, another famous regional bread. I tried to emulate the traditional shape, but the rungs of my ladder closed as the bread rose. I have relied heavily on a recipe that was developed by Martha Rose Shulman, and to avoid the problem, she suggests the bread be shaped into a ball or baked in a brioche pan. If you decide to make the bread, remember you have options as to how it is shaped. This is a barely sweet bread that has a subtle orange flavor. Sweet lovers will have difficulty classifying this as a dessert, but I think they'll love the bread for breakfast. It makes wonderful toast. If you have a stand mixer, you'll find this is an easy bread to prepare. The dough for this bread is damp and that may be off-putting to new bakers, but it does come together as it rises. I do hope you'll give this traditional recipe a try this holiday season. Here is how the bread is made.
Provençal Orange Scented Christmas Bread...from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite courtesy of Martha Rose Shulman
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons mild honey
2 cups + 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus additional flour for kneading, divided use
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon orange flower water (see Cook's Note One below)
2 tablespoons finely chopped or grated orange zest (2 oranges)
1-3/4 whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons salt
Egg wash made with 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
1) Place warm water and yeast in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Stir in honey and 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let stand until mixture bubbles, about 30 minutes.
2) Add sugar, eggs, olive oil, orange flower water and orange zest to sponge and mix together on low speed using paddle attachment of a stand mixer. Add remaining all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour and salt, mixing briefly at low speed just to combine. Change to dough hook and mix for 10 minutes on medium speed (dough will still be sticky). Turn onto a lightly floured board and shape into a ball. Clean and dry bowl, and coat lightly with olive oil. Place dough in it and turn to coat all sides with oil. Cover bowl with plastic and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
3) Punch down dough and divide in 2 pieces. Shape each piece of dough into 9 x 4-inch leaf-shaped rectangle.
Place dough on lightly oiled baking sheets and make 3 diagonal slashes across each leaf. Slightly stretch bread dough to widen and pull slits open. Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm spot to rise for 1 hour.
4) Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat together egg and water and lightly brush loaves with wash. Place in oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until golden brown and loaf responds to tapping with a hollow thumping sound. Brush again with egg wash after 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Yield: 2 loaves.
Cook's Note One: Orange blossom water is water distilled with the essence of flowers from bitter orange trees. Flower petals are gently boiled in water, and the aromatic steam is captured and condensed into a catch, producing an almost clear, highly fragrant, and gently flavored liquid. The process—which is the same way rose water is made—is easy to industrialize, so yesterday's perfume of emperors is easily affordable for today's cook. It can be ordered through Amazon.
Cook's Note Two: The bread freezes well for up to a month and can be kept at room temperature for 2 days. Leftovers make great French toast.
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