I’m late jumping on the Hunger Games bandwagon. I’d heard of the books but never felt any desire to read them, which is odd considering that given my fixation with food, you’d think a series where food features prominently would appeal to me. But no. I stuck to my first beloved series, Harry Potter, eagerly awaiting the releases of the movies long after the final book had been published, and mourning the end of an era when the final film came out last July. And when Entertainment Weekly featured the Hunger Games movie as its cover story in early March, I tossed aside that particular issue as one that I wasn’t interested in reading. Oh, how wrong I was.
Intrigued by the good reviews, I saw the movie a few weeks ago. I was instantly hooked. I left the theater dying to know what happened next, and wondering why everyone was pronouncing Peter’s name with an accent (turns out it’s because his name is actually Peeta, not Peter, duh). The following day I went to Barnes & Noble and bought all three books. And then proceeded to spend each night of the next week motionless on my couch as I devoured them, staying up way past my bedtime to follow Katniss through the arena. If I’d had the guts, I would have taken a day off work just to read.
Here’s the thing though. Reading those books also made me hungry. I wanted hot chocolate. I wanted those elaborate meals they ate in the Capitol. I wanted the shellfish they lived off on in Catching Fire. Most of all, I wanted bread. I love bread. The idea that each District had its own distinct type of bread made me so excited. Each time I read about the characters eating bread — and it seemed like they were always eating bread — I’d start salivating. I think it’s safe to say that I would probably not last long if I were a tribute because I’d be too busy thinking about carbs rather than trying to stay alive.
I’ve been pretty busy lately with trips, work, and trips for work, but as soon as I had time, I made some bread. Unfortunately, my first attempt was a “spicy garlic bread” that turned out to be anything but, and which I deemed unfit to post on this blog. So then I made this stecca. Stecca means “stick” in Italian, a perfect name for this long, narrow bread. You can leave it plain or — my preferred method — garnish it with cherry tomato halves, garlic, and/or olives. As with other Jim Lahey no-knead breads, it’s very easy to make but the outcome is impressive. The crust is slightly crispy, but the interior is soft and chewy. I picture a loaf of this bread floating down to Katniss in a silver parachute while she sits nestled in a tree. She’d try to ration it out, maybe eat it with some squirrel meat or plant roots. Obviously, she’d love it. I guarantee you will too because, honestly, the odds are ever in this bread’s favor.
From My Bread by Jim Lahey
Note: The stecca may become a bit soggy in just a few hours due to the salt on the surface. If so, just reheat in a hot oven until crisp.
3 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon instant or other active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups cool (55 to 65 degrees F) water
additional flour for dusting
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt, divided
Optional: 10 per stecca – cherry tomato halves, lightly crushed garlic cloves, or large pitted olives
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, table salt, sugar, and yeast. Add the water and use a wooden spoon to mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until surface is dotted with bubbles and dough is more than doubled in size, 12-18 hours.
When the first rise is complete, generously dust work surface with flour. Scrape dough out of bowl in one piece. Fold dough over itself 2 or 3 times and gently shape it into a somewhat flattened ball. Brush surface of dough with some of the olive oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the coarse salt (it will gradually dissolve into the surface).
Place a tea towel on work surface and generously dust with flour. Place dough on towel, seam side down. If dough is tacky, dust top lightly with flour. Fold ends of tea towel loosely over dough to cover it and place in a warm, draft-free spot for 1-2 hours. Dough is ready when almost doubled. If gently poked with your finger, it should hold the impression; if it springs back, let it rise for another 15 minutes.
Half an hour before the end of the second rise, position rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Oil a 13x18x1 inch baking sheet.
Cut dough into quarters. Gently stretch each piece evenly into a stick shape approximately the length of the pan. Place on pan, leaving at least 1 inch between the loaves. If the dough shrinks back a bit, that’s okay – just stretch it out as long as it will go. Push 10 cherry tomato halves, 10 large pitted olives, or 10 lightly crushed garlic cloves into each stecca, taking care to space evenly. (Note: I also sprinkled some dried oregano onto my tomato stecca.) Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt. (Note: do not salt the olive stecca; it’s already salty from the olives.)
Bake for 15-25 minutes, until crust is golden brown. Cool on pan for 5 minutes, then transfer the stecca to a rack to cool thoroughly.