This started out as a recipe that was not at all mine. Spotted in Beth Hensperger’s Bread Bible, the original bread featured a wholly different selection of herbs, a nice dose of white wine, and a hearty stuffing of Italian sausage. But then, as these things so often happen, when I wanted to make the bread I found that I was not in possession of the particular herbs Ms. Hensperger called for. I was also out of wine. And sausage (because who just keeps a spare supply of sausage lying around the house? Or maybe people actually do that and I just don’t know it? I must research this further).
So I made do. The herbs were a bit different, the wine was swapped out with warm water and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar, and the stuffing changed from sausage to a lovely layer of roasted red pepper and sautéed spinach. The end result, though not much like the one intended by Hensperger, was wonderful. But now, sitting down to type this, I am beginning to wonder if the two recipes can rightfully be called the same thing.
The idea came from Hensperger, of course, and the method is all hers, but the ingredients are a far stretch from those so dutifully printed in her cookbook. Can a recipe that started as a vision for one thing and then eventually morphed into another be given the distinction of being one in the same?
I suppose not. However, it would be incredibly wrong of me to claim this recipe as my own creation, as the heart of it lies, I believe, with Hensperger. Well, maybe not the geographical heart, since the middle (the stuffing) is composed of something almost entirely different than what was originally intended, but, you know, the soul of the recipe lies with Hensperger.
I do not believe this recipe could ever be called my own, but I also don’t believe that Hensperger would look at it and recognize it as hers, either. So, where does this leave us? I am delighted to report that this, of course, leaves us in the realm of food, cooking, and the inspiration that the two can bring. This is an amalgamation, a recipe borne from inspiration. It’s a little bit my own, a larger bit Beth Hensperger’s, and entirely the result of the creativity and imagination that food can inspire.
Italian-Style Herb Bread
Adapted heavily from Beth Hensperger’s Bread Bible
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
½ teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary, or ¼ teaspoon dried rosemary
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cups warm water
1 ½ tablespoons active dry yeast
pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
5 to 5 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large red bell pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped scallions
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 cups roughly chopped spinach
salt and pepper
8 ounces of fresh, whole milk mozzarella cheese, diced
In a small bowl, combine pepper, herbs, and olive oil, and let sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature.
Pour the warm water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and pinch of sugar over the water. Stir to dissolve, then let sit at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast mixture, salt, balsamic vinegar, and herb-oil mixture. Beat until foamy. Add in 5 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon (or, if you are using a stand mixer, the paddle attachment) to make a soft dough.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until springy, smooth, and resilient, about 5 minutes. Dust with the remaining ½ cup of flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the dough is too wet and resistant to kneading. If kneading with a stand mixer, replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and knead as instructed for only 3 or 4 minutes.
Place the dough in a greased bowl. Grease the top of the dough, then cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
While the dough is rising, preheat your oven’s broiler and arrange an oven rack to the highest position. Place the bell pepper on a heavv baking sheet, then place the sheet on the highest oven rack, directly under the hottest part of the broiler. Roast pepper, turning frequently, until the skin is uniformly blackened all over. Remove blackened pepper to a plate, then cover with foil and let rest for 10 minutes to allow the skin to begin steaming loose.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the scallions and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently to keep the garlic from browning, until the scallions have started to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped spinach and sauté, stirring frequently, for an additional 5 to 8 minutes, until the spinach has released its liquid. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool to room temperature.
Peel the blackened skin from the roasted pepper. Remove and discard the seeds and core of the pepper. Roughly dice the roasted, peeled pepper, then set aside.
20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place an oven rack in the middle position, then place a heavy baking sheet or a baking stone on the rack.
Place a sheet of parchment paper on a rimless baking sheet, or on an overturned baking sheet.
Gently deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat the dough into a 14” by 10” rectangle, with the long side facing you. Spread the cooled spinach mixture lengthwise along the middle third of the dough, then sprinkle with the roasted pepper, then the cheese. Fold the dough into a smaller rectangle by bringing the two long ends together, then pinch to close. Fold each short end over by about 1 inch, then pinch each end closed. Lay the dough, seam side down, on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Using a sharp knife, make several diagonal slashes on top of the dough. Allow dough to rest for 10 minutes.
Slide the dough, still resting on the parchment paper, onto the heated baking sheet or baking stone. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the dough is brown and it emits a hollow sound when tapped with a finger. Transfer immediately to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before slicing.