Old Italian uncles, a much-loved and much-tested bread, and some killer apricots? Count me in! – Amy
I have this really, really cute great-uncle. His name is Evo, and he’s 100% Italian – which, waaaay back when, apparently wasn’t a “favorable” trait when it came to courting my aunt. But since he’s really, really cute, that was forgiven and he and my aunt got married and have lived happily ever after ever since.
My aunt and uncle are a pair of the most important people in my life, and Evo is especially special. He once ran for mayor. He used to play a lot of golf. He still plays a lot of bocce ball. He always looks forward to our visit because it gives him an excuse to crack open a beer with my husband. He calls me Miss America. And the thing is, he really thinks I should be.
As often happens with relatives of a certain age who pretty much have everything that they want and need in life, the time comes when holiday gift-giving veers away from yet another sweater or tie or box of golf balls and instead towards something more “consumable”. So the Christmas before last, I baked two loaves of this bread – one loaf with apricot and fennel seeds, and one loaf without – and once they had fully cooled, packed them up and mailed them off to my aunt and uncle.
To say that the bread was a hit would be an understatement. The thank you card that my aunt sent us is truly a Hall-of-Famer, and it still hangs on the pin board in my office today. “Just want you kids to know,” it began, “that in your later years, your bread making will keep you busy…” Evo, in particular, was especially impressed. His visiting cousins from Italy happened to try it, too, and they raved about how it was just like the bread Evo’s mom used to make. “Just think,” my aunt’s card continued, “it’s been tasted – and enjoyed – by people from Europe!”
Needless to say, this bread has been my one and only go-to gift to them for every occasion ever since, even if it’s just a Tuesday. And this year, God willing, we’ll be celebrating a real milestone – after almost losing Evo in 2013, my spunky, lots-of-life-still-left-in-him uncle will turn 90 this year. I look forward to buying a billion pounds of flour and baking him enough loaves of his favorite bread to last him throughout his entire birthday year.
Recently, my mom was on the phone with my aunt, and she heard Evo pipe up in the background: “Make sure she tells Mary that we’re out of bread!” After my aunt gave him a brief scolding, she came back on the phone and said, “He’s right, though – we are out of bread…”
You should know that this bread is also fantastic without the fennel and apricots and, in my opinion, is best enjoyed toasted with butter. It also freezes wonderfully, which is why it makes me happy to know that even though I don’t live close enough to visit my aunt and uncle as often as I’d like, I can still send my love to them via this bread that they’re able to enjoy for months at a time.
Rustic Apricot Fennel Bread
Makes: 1 loaf
- 3 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- ¼ teaspoon of instant yeast
- 1 ¼ teaspoon of salt
- 2 teaspoons of fennel seeds, gently crushed using a mortar and pestle
- 1 1/3 cups of water
- ¾ cup of dried apricots, chopped
- Combine the flour, yeast, salt, and fennel seeds in a large bowl. Add the water, and mix until blended. Add the chopped apricots and mix until just combined. The dough will be ragged-looking and sticky.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm location to rise for at least 12 hours, preferably 18. The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles.
- Generously coat a linen or cotton towel with flour. Using a large spoon or rubber spatula, fold the dough over itself a few times in the bowl, loosely shaping it into a ball, and then turn the dough out onto the floured towel. Sprinkle the top of the dough generously with flour and cover with another towel, and let rise for 2 more hours.
- At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6 to 8 quart heavy covered Dutch oven inside the oven as it heats.
- When the dough is ready, remove the pot from the oven and uncover the lid. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot and gently shake the pot to distribute the dough evenly. (It will look like a wreck, but don’t worry!) Quickly cover the pot with the lid and put it back in the oven to bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 15-30 minutes, until the loaf is a nice deep brown.
- When the bread is done, remove it from the pot and allow to cool on a rack.
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