Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I tend to be a little bit…extravagant; some might even say flamboyant. This extravagance and/ or possible alleged “flamboyance” usually serves me very well; however from time to time even I will admit I go overboard. I have gotten myself into trouble because I want food that is equally delicious and unforgettable in appearance. Going back to Sara Moulton’s constant reminder on her long-gone TV show “your eyes eat before your mouth”. It’s true. A seduction encompassing all five senses is what differentiates a meal from an experience. I believe that is why so many covet Italian cuisine and atmosphere. Italian gastronomy is one of the few that emphasizes the unique importance of each sense and yet ironically is one of the easiest to master. Unpretentious, beautifully rustic, and of course fabulous in taste, the understated elegance and beloved flavors of Italian cuisine lend themselves perfectly to summer entertaining. The truth of the matter is, no one is coming to your party just for the food. If you are in the kitchen stressed while guests are arriving, frantically arranging perfectly matched julienne strips of carrots and celery (into a herringbone pattern) on the hors’ oeuvre platter you were supposed to have out 15 minutes before the doorbell rang…it will show and make your guests feel uncomfortable. And I’m pretty sure whether you spend $50 or $500 you’ll have the same guest list/ That being said, it’ll still be a frosty day in hell before I serve cocktail wieners from a crock-pot. Unless Anthony Weiner is coming, then I think it might be funny.
The dilemma is how to create a truly show-stopping spread that doesn’t pose the possibility of a nervous breakdown. I scanned my mind for the most beautiful food I’ve ever seen, and then how far ahead I could make it. The winner seemed to be bread. Who doesn’t love bread? It’s cheap, beautiful, and can be made and frozen weeks even months before the party. In my mind I began to build the concept of a “bread bar”. A collection of beautiful breads with customizable accouterments. The Bread Bar took a decidedly Italian turn when I included staples of antipasto--marinated Sicilian olives, roasted sweet peppers, and young, spicy red wines. This created the experience that defines Italian countryside cooking. The smell of the freshly baked bread mixed with the sweet zest of sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil. The vista of a table packed to the gills with vivid color. The sounds of bread being torn and wine splashing into glasses. The crunch of the bread in juxtaposition to the smooth skin of an olive. And of course the one and only taste of homemade bread the perfect canvas for the slight sting of a young wine and the salty brine of an olive. It is this symphony that creates the lush characteristics of Italian dining. Best of all, once your guests arrive, your only responsibilities are to uncork more wine and slice more bread.
I have included the recipes for the bread and sun-dried tomato dipping oil. I prefer to make my own roasted peppers, the recipe is hereBASIC BREAD DOUGH (makes three loaves)
for interest and variety, I recommend one rectangular loaf of basic white bread, one baguette ,and one round loaf of herbed bread
6 cups all purpose flour +
2 cups water+
1 egg
2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt

I did not work with yeast for years because I had one bad experience. Don’t be afraid it really is easy. The only part that can kill the whole project is if you literally kill the yeast, to avoid this just be mindful of the temperature of the ingredients, specifically the water in step 1. After that it’s easy. This recipe uses a starter which is a yeast mixture of water and sugar. Once yeast is live in the warm water it needs food in the form of some kind of sugar. I use sugar but you can also use honey.
1. Heat one cup of water between 100 and 110° F (yeast dies at 120 but is fairly inactive below 80) mix in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and two tablespoons of sugar. After water, sugar, and oil and combined add the yeast. combine. NO salt goes in the starter. it should look like this
let sit for about ten minutes, in this time the yeast will bloom and look like this
2. In mixing bowl (the taller the sides, the better) add all six cups of flour. With your hand create a well in the middle by pushing the middle of the flour out toward the edge of the bowl. Add salt, egg, starter, and 1 cup of water (just warm tap water). Begin mixing. At this point, you are better off having too much water than too little, so if the dough is not easily incorporating add a little more water. If dough is too wet, add more flour in increments of ¼ cup After mixing a few minutes you want it to look like this
3. Turn out onto a floured surface and press into an even circle

4. Oil the blade of a knife (so it doesn’t stick) and cut the circle into three wedges (if you want to make one loaf with herbs [recipe] you can set one of the wedges back in the mixing bowl)

5. Knead each wedge a few minutes until it is smooth and elastic (meaning if you try and flatten it it shrinks back) at this point you will probably add a little bit more flour just to prevent it from sticking to the counter, that is okay just be mindful that the less flour you add the better.
6. Lightly oil a large bowl. If doing one loaf with herbs, oil two bowls. It will rise separately to prevent discoloration of the white loaves. Add the balls of dough to the bowl and lightly oil their surfaces. Cover very tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise one hour or until doubled in size. I write the time on the plastic wrap in case I forget exactly how long ago one hour was…

7. Punch down the dough. this releases all the gas that has accumulated inside the dough as a byproduct of the yeast feeding on the flour. Instead of actually punching the dough down, to protect its shape and surface, I grab it from the bottom and fold the top into the bottom creating another perfectly smooth surface. Cover again and let rise until doubled again.
8. Shape loaves. I have the method for shaping a baguette on my website. As for the remaining two loaves, you can go to a lot of trouble to shape them perfectly in a more natural fashion--or you can place the dough into pans the shape you want the loaves to be. I wanted a rectangle and a circle, so I used a small roasting pan and a springform cheesecake pan. Or you can let a free-form loaf rise on a cookie sheet lined with foil. Whatever you bake them in, line the bottoms and sides with 1 teaspoon of flour and 1 teaspoon of oil

 9. Let rise another 20-30 minutes and brush either with oil or egg wash to prevent the dough from oxidizing and forming a filmy crust.
10. bake about 35-50 minutes depending on your oven. Your loaves should be a deep golden color (deeper gold or mahogany if you used egg wash). To test their doneness, knock on the middle of the loaf. If it sounds hollow, it is baked through. Let rest at least 10 minutes before cutting. Cutting immediately from the oven can result in moisture escaping so rapidly that the loaf falls in on itself.
2 Tablespoons fresh finely chopped herbs, I use sage, rosemary, thyme, and basil in equal quantity.

3 Tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes* chopped finely
1 teaspoon melted butter
2 cups extra virgin olive oil*
Combine all ingredients, and let sit at least 6 hours before serving.
I assembled my bread bar into two sections, wine and food. This makes for great conversation and smooth procession through the bar. Your table should flow from left to right. Although sometimes it isn’t the best aesthetically it never works smoothly otherwise (unless of course this Bread Bar is at a left-handed support group). If you like you can set out red and white wine. Although for this, red really is a much better pairing. A home bar does not need to include everyone’s favorite cocktail (I’m talking to YOU Ramona Singer!). And because bread is so beautiful and inexpensive to make, I love to present the table with an abundance of loaves that your guests can take home.

As you can see I have one large platter with cubed bread for dipping arranged around the sun-dried tomato oil and another platter to the side with olives, roasted peppers , and room temperature butter for slices of bread.

The Bread Bar has the dramatic appeal to be the star of any cocktail party and lets the simple ingredients of summer shine. It is impressive and bountiful yet inexpensive and easy. I hope you’ll try it!

*When it comes to Italian pantry ingredients like oils and packed vegetables, I encourage you to go Italian markets and find your own favorites. I have gone to Carfagna’s forever and it is one of my favorite places in Columbus. But if you can’t find what you’re looking for I have info on a few of my favorite products from the Bread Bar.
Olive Oil- I have tried countless brands of olive oil and have decided the king is Minerva Extra Virgin. An import from Greece, it has incredible flavor with a delicate texture. It is the perfect oil for a dipping sauce.

Sun-Dried Tomatoes- First of all, you always want your sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. If they are dehydrated and come in a plastic bag, they lose their subtle spice. My favorites are the Roland San Remo Imported from Italy.

Balsamic Vinegar- Like I have with olive oil, I have searched for years for the perfect balsamic. It needs to be acidic yet not too pungent, sweet but not sugary, and fruity but earthy. This flavor only develops with age. Del Duca is aged in Modena for optimal flavor.


  1. You are so right about the bread! You are writing a book...right? :-) Great idea and if you think about it, in all those hotels in Europe, the morning buffet is a huge bread bar!!!!!

  2. haha I actually have been working on a book! Thanks so much for the response!