Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thom Leonard's Olive Bread

The original recipe, to be found in Maggie Glezer's marvelous Artisan Baking Across America, actually calls for Kalamata olives, and not any Kalamatas but very ripe, black purple ones which are only available from specific sources, either wholesale or in bulk. Maggie warns against buying regular Kalamatas at the grocery store as they would never taste the same. I'd love to try these delicious olives one day but for this loaf, I went with what I had, a jar of pitted oil-cured Moroccan olives (which I happen to like better than Kalamatas but that may be because I never tasted the ones that Thom Leonard uses). (Clicking on Thom's name will take you to a page offering three videos where he explains how to make your own starter at home, why it is important to use plenty of water and how to best use your oven for breadmaking.) Maggie says this olive bread is the best she has ever tasted. I have to say that even with the "wrong" kind of olives, it truly is spectacular. Having sampled recently a couple of store-bought olive loaves, I think back to it longingly. My kids who used to live in the Bay Area have just moved to the Pacific Northwest and in the semi-rural community where they live, it isn't easy to come by a good loaf of artisan bread. I am sure we will eventually ferret out a bakery we'll fall in love with but we are still at the prospecting stage and I shudder when I remember the chemical rosemary-ish taste of the olive bread I bought at the grocery store last week on the first day of my visit. It was packed in a brown paper bag and looked artisanal enough. But even in breads, looks can be deceiving... Whereas Thom's loaf is as honest a loaf as you can hope for. It calls for a levain-based poolish (fermented levain) and a mix of flours including rye. Throw in water, salt and olives and that's the list of ingredients for you. No frills, no pinch of this or that, no hint of commercial yeast. A truly minimalist bread but, oh, so delicious...
Ingredients: (for 2 loaves) For the poolish 25 g fermented firm levain refreshed 8 hours before 115 g water, lukewarm 115 g unbleached bread flour For the final dough 320 g water, lukewarm all of the fermented levain 250 g unbleached bread flour 250 g unbleached all-purpose flour 30 g whole-rye flour (I used freshly milled) 14 g salt 185 g Moroccan oil-cured pitted olives (Thom uses 285 g Kalamata olives, 225 g pitted)
Method: (Thom offers two methods, mixing by hand or using a stand mixer. I chose the first one)
  1. Add the water to the fermented levain to loosen it from the container.
  2. Combine the flours in a large bowl. Pour in the watered fermented levain and stir with your hand or a wooden spoon just until a rough dough forms
  3. Turn the dough onto an unfloured work surface and knead, using a dough scraper to help, until the dough is very smooth and shiny, about 10 minutes
  4. Sprinkle on the salt and continue to knead until the salt has fully dissolved
  5. Gently knead the pitted olives into the dough until evenly distributed. You want the bread marbled with purple, rather than completely purple.
  6. At this stage, the dough should be soft, sticky and very extensible. Place it in a container at least 3 times its size and cover it tightly with plastic wrap. Let it ferment, preferably at 75°F/24°C, until it is airy and well fermented but not yet doubled in bulk, about 3 hours
  7. Fold the dough 3 times at 20-minute intervals, that is, after 20, 40, and 60 minutes of fermenting, then leave the dough undisturbed for the remaining time
  8. Flour the surface of the dough and your work surface and turn the dough out. Cut the dough in half; each piece should weigh 680 g. Gently round them with more flour (I shaped them as ovals instead since I was going to use oblong baskets), cover them loosely with plastic wrap, and let them rest until well relaxed, 15 to 20 minutes
  9. Shape the dough into even and tight round loaves (I shaped them as fat batards) without deflating them. Place the dough topside down in linen-lined baskets, lightly sprinkle with flour, and cover well with plastic wrap. Proof until well expanded, about 3 hours (I only proofed 2 hours as the loaves were clearly ready by then)
  10. At least 45 minutes before the dough is fully proofed, arrange a rack on the oven's second-to-top shelf and place a baking stone on it. Clear away all racks above the one being used. Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C
  11. Turn the breads out onto a sheet of parchment paper or a floured peel and slash an off-center line across the top
  12. If desired, just before baking the bread, fill the oven with steam. Spray the breads lightly with water, then slide them, still on the paper, onto the hot stone. Bake the breads until dark and evenly browned all around, 40 to 45 minutes, rotating them halfway into the bake. Let the breads cool on a rack.
This Olive Bread goes to Susan's Wild Yeast for Yeastspotting.


  1. It's gorgeous!

    I love olive bread but I bake it rarely because my husband hates olives. I will keep this recipe for later and use it when I`m alone at home for week.

  2. Delicious, what did you eat it with? Cheese I think like a sheeps milk gouda would be great?

    Happy Baking!

  3. How would you compare this olive bread to Nancy Silverton's, if you've made her version from her "Breads fr the La Brea Bakery"? I recall you got your start with sourdough starters from her book, as did I back in the late 90's. I love your blog and find we have a lot in common. Thanks so much.

  4. @Anulka, when I met my husband, he hated everything olive, including olive oil. Now he loves both olives and olive oil! Hopefully yours will come around too...
    @Jeremy, we had it with a simple tomato salad and grilled chicken marinated in lime, garlic and ginger. We finished it with fresh goat cheese. It was gooooood!
    @luv2cknbk, I like Nancy's olive bread too from what I can remember (it's been a while since I made it) but Thom's is even better, probably because of the rye. Glad you like the blog! I'd love to know more about you if you care to email.

  5. That looks very delicious.
    I like black olives very much and since I tasted Kalamatas some months ago I will not look at any other olives anymore. I bookmarked the recipe in the book already but had not the time to try it. But your post put it back on top of my list.



  7. @Stefanie, I need to try and make this bread again with really good Kalamatas so that I can compare.
    @TonyK Anonymous, this is strictly a no-caps zone, I don't yell at you, you don't yell at me. Nobody forces you to read my posts. However if you choose to rant about them, it's best to read them first: I made this bread with a jar of oil-cured olives I had in my pantry. I should think that except for those of us who grow all their food, most home bakers would be interested in recipes containing ingredients that are available commercially.

  8. Wish I could grap a thick slice and enjoy it with my day's soup...
    Lovely and beautifully shaped and baked bread, MC!

  9. Is it safe to assume that the poolish was developed the night before and left out to rise for the next morning use in bread recipe? Also would you rinse the olives to remove oil and salt that from the cured olives?
    Great rise for the bread. I would like to understand the reason behind folding the dough at intervals as opposed to just letting it rise.

  10. Thanks, Flo! I too wish I could share with you...
    Hello, Highheat, yes, the poolish was left out to ferment the night before I mixed the final dough. And no, I didn't rinse the olives. I actually like the oil and salt! ;-)
    Folding the dough at intervals enables the baker to keep the kneading/mixing time to a minimum (to avoid oxidizing and loss of flavor). It helps the gluten develop enough for the dough to rise properly. It is just as effective as mixing, just more gentle and it helps get a more open crumb.

  11. Thanks for the prompt response. I never cared for olive bread but this recipe (and the picture you posted) looks too good to pass up.



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