I recently spent a delightful evening with my friend Viola Buitoni, a wonderful Umbrian cook and teacher, and Carol Field, the San Francisco author of the just reissued classic, The Italian Baker.
Viola hosts the wonderful Italian gastronomy series at the Italian Cultural Institute. The presentations are free and I highly recommend them if you want to gain new insights into Italian food and culture.
Carol explained the special place bread and bakers hold in Italian culture and the incredible differences in bread from one part of the country to another, sometimes from one village to the next. There are 1,500 varieties of bread in Italia.
I agree that no Italian meal is complete without great bread on the table. When in Italia I love to explore the local bread bakeries (panificio) and enjoy their specialties – salt-free bread in Florence, the focaccia in Genoa and Venice, the fat bastone loaves in Naples, the Sicilian semolina bread in Palermo.
Carol learned from artisan bread makers throughout Italy. She often joined the bakers at three in the morning as they started baking bread for that day. She painstakingly reduced their large volume recipes and adapted them for the American kitchen. Her recipes maintain the integrity of the Italian original. Carol so inspired me that I had to bake bread this weekend.
This is a version of the bread I grew up on in northern Jersey. We always had a hot loaf from Calandra’s on First Avenue in Newark on our family dinner table. I ate a lot of great Sicilian semolina bread from Bergen County Italian bread bakeries when I was In Jersey for Thanksgiving with family a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been craving semolina bread with sesame seeds ever since.
I adapted Carol’s Pane Siciliano recipe to satisfy my craving. It’s hard to find any Italian bread with sesame seeds in San Francisco never mind one made with semolina flour. Italian-French on Grant at Union sometimes makes a soft twist with sesame seeds and La Boulange sometimes has an Italian loaf with sesame seeds. Both are good but they’re made with unbleached flour. I had to make this one with semolina flour for myself!
The bread has a chewy golden crust and a tender interior turned a pale yellow by the semolina flour. The sesame seeds add a nice nutty flavor.
Semolina Bread with Sesame Seeds
- 2 1/2 teaspoons fresh yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water, no hotter than 110 degrees
- 1 tablespoon EVOO
- 1 cup water
- 2 1/2 cups or 350 grams durum wheat or semolina flour
- 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon or 150 grams unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2-3 teaspoons or 10-15 grams fine sea salt
- 1/3 cup sesame seeds
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
- In a measuring cup dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Let it stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
- Whisk the EVOO and the cup of water together.
- Put the flours and salt in the bowl of a food processor with the knife blade. Pulse 2 or 3 times to mix the dry ingredients. (You can make the dough by hand in a large bowl. Put the wet ingredients in a large bowl and mix in the flour a cup at a time until the dough forms. Knead it until the dough is soft and silky smooth.)
- With the machine running pour in the yeast mixture and then the water/oil mixture.
- Process for about 45 seconds after the dough comes together.
- Knead on a floured surface until the dough feels smooth.
- Form the dough into a ball and put it in a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and then a kitchen towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until double in size, 60-90 minutes.
- Press the dough down and put it on a floured work surface.
- Cut the dough in half to form 2 balls.
- Flatten the ball with your fingers to form a rectangle.
- Tightly roll the dough to form a cylinder, each loaf should be about 10 inches long and 6 inches in diameter.
- Wet the top of each loaf, sprinkle with sesame seeds and press the seeds in with your fingers.
- Cover loosely with plastic wrap and then a kitchen towel to keep the loaves from drying out.
- Set aside to double in size, 60-90 minutes.
- Sprinkle corn meal on a peel or baking sheet.
- Place the loaves on the peel or sheet and make 3 slashes on the top of each loaf with a razor.
- Slide the loaves onto the baking stone or place the sheet on the stone. (If you do not have a baking stone, put the sheet on the lowest rack of the oven.)
- Spray the loaves several times with water. The moisture helps the bread expand more before the crust sets.
- After about 10 minutes reduce the heat to 400 and bake in the dry oven until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when you knock on them, about 25 -30 minutes.
- Cool the loaves on a wire rack for 30 minutes before slicing.