Baking challenge: nostalgie des pique-niques

Twisted red pesto loaf

When it came to this challenge, and the making of a celebration loaf, I tried to think properly about what kind of bread I’d make to mark a happy occasion. In winter, I doubtless would have thought of rich enriched breads like chocolatey babka, cherry-studded strudel or marzipanny stollen. But it’s summer, and hot, and I was wondering if there were savoury breads I could celebrate with, and immediately this came to mind.

Shortly after my second year of university, with exams over, I organised a picnic in Regent’s Park. All my friends came, and they brought their friends: we sprawled out on the grass and laid out heaps of food. It was very hot (like now!), and very sunny (like now!), and the grass was very green. It was a golden, joyful afternoon, still one of the happiest ever in my memory. I was not always very carefree at university but I was completely happy that day, laying on the picnic blankets, nibbling at the sausage rolls and clementines and crisps and watching my friends climb trees.


Like with many joyful things, it is an atmosphere I have tried to recapture, but no other picnic has ever been quite as wonderful as that one. Time has generated fissures and fractures between groups of people, which mean you can no longer bring them together (or if you do, you spend a lot more time managing relationships and pouring oil on troubled waters than feeling the grass shoots tickle between your fingers and looking up at the blue, blue sky). More pertinently, the challenge of gathering such a large, happy, uncommitted group together on a bright, hot, sunny day in the middle of London would probably be impossible. We rolled on the grass from noon until early evening that day; now we’d scatter much earlier, all the better to visit parents, or study for professional exams, or simply prepare for the long working week ahead. Between second and third year, I had no such professional timetable to worry about.

The food, that day, is both memorable and completely unimportant: I can remember smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, cheddar and onion crisps – but most of it blends into a happy blur of salt and sweet and juicy citrus. The food did what food should do: it was not the centrepiece, it did not attract attention: it brought people together to eat and talk and run around and eat some more, until the sun went down and the evening grew cool and deep blue.

I do remember what I made for this picnic, which was a Jamie Oliver recipe for something called a rolled bread sandwich – bread dough stuffed with ham and basil and cheese (the recipe also includes hard-boiled eggs but I didn’t include those). I also made a vegetarian version with feta and spinach, i.e. a bread spanakopita, which was much appreciated by the vegetarians present, which in my group of friends is about half.

What I’ve learned from my many attempts to recreate that golden afternoon on the grass is that you can’t go back in time again; you can’t recapture a flavour and a feeling and the ease of pleasurable conviviality simply because you want it. And, similarly, I have opted to not recreate the recipe exactly, but to make a savoury bread which would remind of that day, and yet be something different. This recipe for sundried tomato pesto bread is adapted from one in ‘Het Hartige Bakboek’ [‘The Savoury Baking Book’] by Rutger van den Broek, the first winner of Heel Holland Bakt, the Dutch version of the Great British Bake-Off. I was attracted to this particular recipe because of the use of semolina, which gives the otherwise basic white bread recipe some character and a more robust, chewier texture that stands up well to the nubbly, salty filling.

The swirl looks impressive but is incredibly easy to do. It amazed everyone at the house party to which I brought this loaf, and I felt slightly guilty about the skewed effort-to-amazement ratio.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week seven of series three: a celebratory loaf.

Red pesto swirl bread
Adapted from ‘Het Hartige Bakboek’

NB You don’t have to make the pesto first, you can make it while the bread is bulk proving.

For the red pesto

  • 1 bunch fresh basil
  • 100g sundried tomatoes in oil (drained weight)
  • 3 TBS toasted pine nuts
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 35g grated parmesan
  • 60ml olive oil
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Combine the basil, sundried tomatoes, pine nuts, garlic clove and parmesan in the bowl of a small food processor and blitz until finely chopped.
  2. Add the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and whizz to a coarse, nubbly paste. Taste and season as you like with the salt and pepper. Set aside.

For the bread

  • 300g strong white bread flour
  • 200g fine semolina
  • 7g instant dry yeast
  • 10g coarse sea salt
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 320ml water
  • 1 recipe red pesto (above)
  1. Combine the flour, semolina, yeast and salt. Add the olive oil and water and mix together until thoroughly combined.
  2. Knead the dough together for 10-15 minutes until a windowpane forms. If the windowpane hasn’t formed, just knead it a bit longer.
  3. Form the kneaded dough into a ball and place in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, a damp tea towel, beeswax wraps or other reusable food covers. Let rise for an hour to an hour and a half, until doubled in bulk and springy.
  4. While the dough proves, butter a loaf pan thoroughly.
  5. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface, forming a rectangle approximately 25x50cm. Spread the pesto evenly over the surface of the rectangle. Roll up the rectangle on the short side, then cut the cylinder of rolled up dough in half so you have two half cylinders. Place the uncut side of each cylinder of dough against one another, so the cut sides are facing outwards (see the process photos above for reference). Twist the two lengths of dough around each other (like braiding, but with two, rather than three, lengths of dough). Place the twisted-together loaf in the loaf pan, tucking the ends under if necessary to fit. Cover the loaf pan as you did the bowl when proving the dough the first time. Set aside and allow to rise for an hour to an hour and a half, until doubled in size and springy.
  6. Before you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 200C. Bake the bread in the tin between 35-45 minutes, until golden brown. If the bread is darkening too quickly during baking, cover it with foil. Let the bread cool for 10-15 minutes in the tin on a wire rack before turning out. Ideally serve on the day.


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