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Una versione italiana di questo post si trova qui.

Last September, we spent a week on Marettimo, the most remote of the Egadi Islands off the northwest coast of Sicily. It would take a long time to do justice to the wonders of this enchanting island. Apart from the beautiful scenery and crystal clear sea, it is a paradise for lovers of fish and seafood. I’m afraid I don’t really fall into that category, but my partner most definitely does. So we visited a number of the excellent fish restaurants on the island, where I endured quite a bit of good-natured abuse and the occasional look of contempt from the proprietors, when I asked if they could serve me with meat.

But I had no qualms about the bread. Golden brown and crusted with sesame, its crumb a lovely yellow, and with a rich and elusive flavour, it was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. In Palermo, where we spent a few frenetic days at the end of our holiday, the sesame was enhanced by a little bit of aniseed.

On Marettimo, the bread was made into a simple baton, but elsewhere in Sicily it is often formed into two traditional shapes known as occhi (meaning “eyes”), which is shaped like a scrolled S, and mafalda, which resembles a twisting snake.

As soon as I returned home, I set about finding a recipe. It turned out there was one in The Italian Baker by Carol Field. I also happened to have brought back a bag of the beautifully yellow flour known as semola di grano duro rimacinata, or remilled durum wheat semola, which is a key ingredient.

There is some confusion about what exactly would be the equivalent of this in the English speaking world. What is sold in the UK as semolina (for making milk puddings) is probably too coarse. In her recipe, Carol Fields suggests using durum flour, but I have never seen that in England. I would suggest you try to find a supplier of the genuine Italian article. If the label includes the words semola rimacinata and per pane, you should be OK. I did find a few UK suppliers on line, by googling those words.

Ingredients

  • 350g Semola di grano duro rimacinata (see above)
  • 150g plain / all purpose flour
  • 10g fine salt
  • 15g fresh yeast or 7g fast action yeast
  • 1 teaspoon malt extract (or honey)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 300g warm water
  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon aniseed
  • 2 baking sheets covered with baking parchment

Method

In a large bowl, mix together the two flours and the salt. If using fresh yeast, rub it into the flour; otherwise simply mix in the fast action yeast.

Dissolve the malt extract in the warm water and add to the bowl along with the olive oil. Stir until everything has come together into a dough.

Scrape the dough out onto an unfloured surface and work or knead it for 5-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Form it into a ball, using your scraper and a very small amount of flour to help you do this, if necessary.

Put a half teaspoon of oil in the bowl and turn the dough over in it to coat it.

Cover with clingfilm or a shower cap and leave to rise until doubled in size. This should take about an hour and a half at room temperature. I left mine in a cool room overnight.

Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pat it out into a disk about 2cm thick, then reform it into a ball by pulling the edge out at several points around the circumference and pressing down into the centre. Turn it over and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Take half of the dough and roll it under your hands to form a rope about 70cm long. You really do need it that long to form a satisfactory loaf. It is easier to form the rope if your work surface has very little or even no flour on it. Make sure to lift the rope frequently as it will shrink back on itself.

To form the occhi or scroll-shaped loaf, lay the rope out straight and coil it from each end in opposite directions. This is easier than it sounds, once you actually try it!

To make the mafalda or snake, wind the rope back and forth on itself a few times, leaving about 15cm for a tail to lie over the top. There is no need to do anything to make it stick to the rest of the loaf.

Dust the baking parchment on your trays with semolina and put the loaves on them. Brush them with water and sprinkle with the sesame seed and aniseed mix.

Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 230C / 450F / Gas Mark 8 (adjust for fan oven). Put your baking stones in from the start if you have them.

Spray the loaves with a fine mist of water just before putting in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 200C / 400F / Gas Mark 6 (adjust for fan oven). At the same time, turn the loaves, and swap between shelves if necessary to ensure even browning. Bake for another 20 minutes or so, until a nice dark golden colour.

Notes

First of all, apologies to any English readers who will have only seen the Italian version of this post for the last week. I intended to publish both posts at the same time but tiredness and the madness of life mean that this did not happen.

I entered this bread into the Italian on-line competition called Dal Piemonte alla Sicilia (from Piemonte to Sicily). I don’t expect to win, but I enjoyed the challenge of making these loaves.

The pictures in Carol Fields book show both loaves with more twists and turns than I managed to achieve. I think that in order to do that you would have to use more dough and make a much longer rope than she suggests. I shall try that next time.

And there definitely will be a next time! My mafalda may have been a bit stubby, and my occhi not as curly as I’d have liked, but otherwise I thought they looked and tasted quite authentic, transporting me back to the magical island of Marettimo, and the more hectic delights of Palermo.

A typical view ofMarettimo