My freshman year of college, my diet was mainly four things: bagles and cream cheese, raisin bread and butter, watermelon, and scrambled eggs. Back then, students suspected the ground beef from taco night was added to the pasta sauce for the following and then spread on sheet pan pizza for a dizzying go-round of the same tasteless dishes again and again. I learned from a befriended cafeteria worker, our suspicions were well founded. (Saint Mary’s has since remodeled the cafeteria and revamped their menu. Their selection and quality have significantly improved. Unfortunately, this was after I graduated.)
A diet of only four things comes with drawbacks, such as an irrational dependence on salted butter. Raisin bread with unsalted butter is like a glazed doughnut licked clean of its sugar. The full flavor’s just not there. A normal eater might have moved on to frosted flakes or sausage links. I did not. I started salting my own butter. At times I sprinkled on so much extra flavoring I had to toss the slice of bread and go back for another. Luckily, I normally ate my raisin bread breakfasts alone, huddled over a book while I tried to finsh the last bit of homework. Salt embarrassment avoidance 101 – salt in private and no one will know.Little did I know, eating raisin bread is considered an act of faith. In Siena, to the south of Lucca, raisins are baked into bread. It’s called “Bread with Saints” (Pan co’ Santi) and is always baked for St. Martin’s Day on November 11. This is a very important day in northern and central Italy because it closes the farm year. In Siena, eating raisin bread represents making way for rebirth. Local lore says the raisins are saints. Eating them is looked upon as an act of faith that new crops will flourish the following year.Perhaps the saints were listening to my silent pleas for better food. The following year my new dorm room had enough space for limited cooking equipment. I was often able to avoid the cafeteria all together. But something unexpected kept happening. Every few days I got a hankering for raisin bread. I salivated at the thought of toasted raisins bread coated with salted butter. Sometimes, I still do.
Tomorrow is November 11th. Do you think your crops will flourish next year?
From The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (with a few adjustments)
Serves 8 – 10
I found this recipe took some getting used to. The strong licorice taste from the anise isn’t a flavor normally found on an American table. I like it though, especially the second day. You can eat it plain, but it’s really better with salted butter. I’ve also been known to add cream cheese, jam or peanut butter.
Also note, the original recipe calls for currants, but I have used raisins as a substitute when they are cheaper. Also, I highly recommend using a thermometer for the water. It may seem anal, but the yeast won’t proof if the water’s too cold and it will die if it’s too warm.
2¼ tsp active dry yeast
¾ cup sugar
2/3 cup warm water (between 100 – 110 degrees)
5 cups of unbleached flour, plus more as needed
¼ cups room temperature milk
1 TBS star anise, crushed
2 tsp salt
1 cup currants, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and drained (raisins may be substituted)
1 TBS sugar
1 TBS water
1 large egg
Add yeast, 1 TBS sugar, and 1 pinch flour to 1/3 cup hot water. Stir well to dissolve and allow to proof for 10 minutes, while the yeast becomes bubbly. Add to the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the rest of the water, milk, anise, salt, sugar, and currents on a slow speed. Slowly beat in 4 cups of flour, until a soft dough has formed.
Replace the paddle with a dough hook and kneed at a medium-low speed for 15 minutes, adding an additional cup of flour 1 TBS at a time. This will form a soft, sticky dough.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Knead by hand for 2 minutes to form a soft, very elastic dough that is barely sticky. Place dough in an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature 4 hours, or until almost tripled in bulk.
Oil a large cookie sheet or pizza pan. Knead down the dough. It will be sticky. Shape the dough into a 24-inch-long log. Bring the ends together, forming a ring. Pinch ends to seal and set it on the pan. Place an oiled upside-down custard cup or ramekin in the center to maintain the ring shape as the dough rises. Cover and let rise at room temperature 1½ to 2 hours, until barely doubled.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, beat together the glaze ingredients and brush generously on the dough. Bake 50 to 55 minutes, or until the bread is a deep mahogany. Cool on a rack. It will keep for a week if wrapped tightly.