"When making bread, the dough needs to be cared for just as you'd care for your baby in your womb. It needs love and care in order to come out well. You need to listen to the dough. It will tell you when it's ready and has risen enough. The scent, the little "bollincini" (bubbles), the size and the dough's softness are the ways in which the bread tells you it has risen enough." This, other cooking philosophies and some of her favorite recipes I learned during my afternoon with Maria Grazia in Puglia. The result: a perfect Salentine lunch at Maria Grazia's family-run, exclusive masseria.
I met Maria Grazia at Masseria Potenti. She and her husband, Pugliese natives, had originally purchased it solely to entertain their friends from Milan and Northern Italy, where they live for much of the year. Their original plans were to have five guest rooms, but they ended up adding a few more and now welcome a select group of guests along with friends. Maria personally greets every guest, friend or first-time visitor, and creates mouth-watering breads, marmalades, desserts and savory dishes for all those that visit. More than a restored ancient country house, their home seems like a movie set, where the story of a dream vacation in Southern Italy takes place.
The stark white of the masseria's walls, beams, pergolas, tables and curtains create such a contrast against the sage green of the olive trees and the big blue Salento sky that every color seems that much more intense. Maria Grazia added her personal touch to every room. Just as she has given a little of herself in each room, she adds much of herself into every dish that flows from her kitchen, adding a touch of raffia or a few sprigs of herbs for the final decorative and personal touch to each dish she makes.
Although her "real job" was the law, she worked as a lawyer and law professor) she has always spent many hours daily in the kitchen. When we first met, food was the first topic of conversation as she immediately showed me her hands, stained from fruits and olives. Proof of the numbers of hours she spends working with the ingredients her native land Salento offers. In her kitchen, surrounded the a mix of the aromatic herbs she has on a wood block, and an almost rainbow array of seasonal vegetables just purchased at the market, we spent the afternoon cooking some of Maria Grazia's favorite dishes.
"Amore, passione e generosita' (love, passion and generosity), all are necessary when cooking and you can never be tired in the kitchen." This philosophy and her love for the herbs, vegetables and grano duro flour are at the base of all the dishes Maria Grazia creates. Breads are her specialty, but she adds herbs to everything she cooks, even desserts. She presents them in the most creative and elegant ways, like the mounds of ricotta she topped with her homemade peperoncino jam and then wrapped in raffia.
Bread was the first food on the day's menu. With the durham wheat flour, Maria made the bread wreath for which I've given you the recipe below, an herb focaccia, and also pasta: orecchiette which she used to make one of the quintessential dishes of Puglia, orecchiette con le cima di rape.
Along with those dishes, she shared her recipe for a beautiful and tasty vegetable cake, she called tortino di verdure, and also a most delicious stuffed calimari dish. The grand finale was a decadent dessert, a ricotta torte with a layer of orange marmellata in the center of the creamy ricotta. Like almost everything else that comes from the masseria's kitchen, Maria Grazia made the orange marmellata herself.
Maria Grazia knows her way around bread dough solely by feel, she explained to me her bread-making process and philosophy. She made to swift slits at the top of the bread dough before leaving it to rise. "Here in Italy, the cross I make on the top of the dough serves two purposes. The first is to bless the bread and the second helps let me know when the dough is ready." The dough is ready when the cross has spread and opened up.
With the well-cared for dough, we made the wreath bread that had a nice crunchy and herb-flavored crust and a pillow-soft center that was light as air. With her permission, I've given you Maria Grazia's recipe bread recipe below.
Herb Wreath Bread
(makes one 11-inch wreath)
8 ounces (250 ml) warm water (90°F - 100°F), plus more if needed
½ ounce fresh yeast
3 cups (380 g) “00” flour
1 cup (130 g) Durham wheat or semolina flour
1 tablespoon salt, plus more for garnish
About 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed and for forming the wreath
2-3 tablespoons poppy seeds
2-3 tablespoons sesame seeds
2-3 tablespoons chopped rosemary
4 bay leaves, optional
Break the yeast into smaller pieces and dissolve in the warm water. Mix together both types of flour and the salt. Make a well with the flour mixture. In the center of the well, pour about 1/3 of the yeast/water mixture and combine some of the flour into the center of the well to mix with the liquid. Continue adding the water mixture into the well and mixing with flour from the sides of the well (the water should not run out of the sides) until the mixture is the right consistency. The consistency should be a very soft and slightly wet dough, but one that does not stick to your hands. (You may need to add more water depending on the flour and the amount of humidity.)
Once the dough is the right consistency, begin kneading by holding one end with one hand and stretching the other end out with the palm of your other hand. Once you’ve stretched the dough out, roll it back in towards you and the hand anchoring the other end of the dough. Turn the dough 95 degrees and repeat this motion. Continue kneading the dough until it is smooth and more elastic, about 7 minutes. Form the dough into a ball. With a sharp knife, score the top of the ball of dough with a cross. Cover with a towel, and as Maria Grazia does, a warm blanket and let rise until it is at least 2 times the size and has small balls of air inside, about 2 hours.
When the dough has risen enough, place it back on the working board and knead out the air. Separate the dough into 3 pieces and roll each piece out into a rope about 1 ½-inches in diameter and equal sizes in length. Spread the poppy seeds out the length of the rope of dough. Wet your hands with a little olive oil and roll one rope in the poppy seeds turning it until the rope of dough is well covered with poppy seeds. Repeat this with the second and third ropes of dough, using sesame seeds to cover one rope and the chopped rosemary for the other.
Take the three ropes of dough, line up and attach them at one end. Form the three ropes of dough into one braid and bring around to form a wreath. Attach both ends. If you're using the bay leaves, place each in the space where the braids come together. Place the wreath on the baking sheet. Drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt. Let rise again for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until it has doubled in size again. Bake the wreath at 375°F for 20-30 minutes, until the wreath has a nice hard crust and when you tap it, it sounds hollow. Buon Appetito!
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be making bread like this and cooking with both Italian mamme and professional chefs. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region and making delicioius dishes like those above! For dates and details, see the page: Food Lover's Culinary Tours in Puglia
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