At one point, maybe a few years after I arrived in Chicago, I picked up a second job out of necessity. My boyfriend had just started law school and my regular M-F office job just wasn’t making the ends meet. We needed some extra cash so I sacrificed my weekends. The gig was behind the counter at a fancy Italian deli/grocer where I primarily worked the register and bakery case. It wasn’t an overly difficult job and despite the tired, zombie-like haze I was in most of the time, I enjoyed it. I learned a lot about prosciutto and balsamic vinegar those winter months. I learned about porcini and olive oil and fancy jams imported from far away places. I learned that you comp the neighborhood cops their morning coffee so they will kindly take care of that illegally parked Jaguar out front within minutes. Most importantly, I learned that working in a deli means free leftover food at the end of the night, a very important thing to young struggling professionals who have high tastes and a low budget.
At the end of a shift, I’d come home with heavy bags of food, mostly leftover unsold bread, remnants of the days samples and some fancy deli meat ends that were too small to make pretty slices. We’d eat like Renaissance royalty for a week. But the favorite of all the takeaways and the one that would get requests, not just from the boyfriend but from friends who’d offer to pick me up if I could provide, was the peppercorn cheese bread. An Italian loaf oozing parmesan and coarse black pepper. It was divine.
I was thinking of that bread the other day though it’s been years since I’ve had it. The memory resurfaced while waiting for a sandwich in my favorite shop and I saw a display of fat rolls titled “giardiniera bread.” What a great idea. Giardiniera, if you’re not familiar, is Chicago’s favorite condiment, a mix of pickled vegetables and olives in an herby oil. Hot or mild it is a standard on every Italian beef and cold cut sub in the city. What if I could recreate that pepper cheese bread with some giardiniera thrown in for good measure? I was liking this idea.
A google search turned up a “lost recipe” column in the Chicago Tribune. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with a love for this bread. One batch down and it was clear; this wasn’t the bread. Nowhere near enough cheese or pepper to ooze from the slashes in the top of the loaf as I remember. C’mon; that was the best part. As I racked my brain trying to conjure up old memories and kicking myself for never working in that kitchen (this was pre-pastry chef days when I thought I wanted to be an ad exec), I took that recipe and changed it. I changed it a lot, but it was a good starting point.
The Tribune recipe calls for some really long rise times but I’m not sure this is accurate. I seem to recall a very small kitchen in that deli. I just don’t think they had the space for all that dough and honestly, with shorter but still respectable rise times, I made a very good bread. So why do a 48 hour pre-ferment when overnight will do?
I added some parmesan, Italian herbs and a good shot of coarsely ground pepper to the dough and filled it with a combination of provolone and more parmesan as well as the drained giardiniera. It brought back all the best memories of those deli days, the delicious food and all the characters who came through. The woman who would always want to “taste” the incredibly expensive prosciutto to make sure we were slicing it thinly enough and then deem our work unacceptable but offer to take the slices for free since we were “just going to throw it away.” She did this every single Saturday morning. The penny pinching customers who would dig through the baskets of reduced day old bread, making a mess looking for those prized loaves yet never realizing that I had already stashed them behind the counter for the staff. The lovely man who brought his dog in and always tipped us even though we didn’t accept tips. We always saved special little treats for that dog. And for that man too, now that I think about it.
I quit that job after 6 months, the 7-day workweek was taking its toll but I sometimes miss those bags of fancy odds and ends. That deli is long gone, replaced with luxury condos but I hear they still have a location in the northern suburbs. I may have to make a visit just to see if that bread is what I remember. But I swear if some lady in front of me asks to feel how thin they’re slicing the prosciutto, I’m going to lose it.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: LOW KEY GOODNESS. This recipe conjures up good memories, though a little foggy around the edges, tinged as they are with a haze of sleepiness. I was tired a lot in those days. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure I lived off a fair amount of bread during those months. It was free and easy to come by, important attributes when cash is low. Though this recipe takes a while, it’s mostly hands off with long, slow, quiet rises. A little rolling with some cheese and that wonderful giardiniera and then suddenly you have a lovely loaf studded with delicious things. A warm slice next to a salad sounds mighty wonderful right now. I really shouldn’t have given that loaf away before cutting off a few slices for myself. Dammit.
Seven years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian bread)
Six years ago: Pretzel Dogs
Five years ago: Baconfest
Four years ago: Fresh Goat Cheese
Three years ago: Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese Croutons, Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
GIARDINIERA CHEESE BREAD
Makes 1, one-pound loaf
note: this is not a speed project as the sponge needs to rest for at least 8 hours, the dough for around 3, the finished loaf for at least 1 hour and bake time is just under and hour so plan accordingly.
for the sponge:
1 1/8 teaspoons active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
6 Tablespoons bread flour
for the dough:
1 cup warm water
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 ½ cups bread flour
1 Tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons dried Italian herbs
¾ cup grated parmesan, divided
½ cup grated provolone (2 ounces)
1 cup giardiniera, drained
for the egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 1 Tablespoon water
- For the sponge: In medium-sized bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water then stir in flour.
- Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place overnight, or for 8-24 hours. When ready to use, sponge will be bubbly and smell fermented and a little funky.
- For the dough: In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook, on low speed combine the sponge with warm water and sugar.
- On low, mix in 1 ½ cups of the flour, salt, pepper and Italian herbs.
- Add another 1 cup flour and ¼ cup of the parmesan to make a manageable dough.
- On medium speed, knead the dough for 8 minutes, or, by hand for 15 minutes until dough is smooth and springy, adding enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or bowl. The dough will be smooth but slightly sticky.
- Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place for 2-3 hours, until doubled in bulk.
- Lightly punch the dough down and turn onto a lightly floured surface.
- Spread and stretch – don’t roll – the dough into a rectangular shape, about 8”x14”.
- Leaving about 2” of dough along one long side bare and filling free, sprinkle the remaining ½ cup parmesan, provolone and the giardiniera over the rectangle.
- Starting with long, filling covered side, roll rectangle tightly, jelly-roll-style, lightly pressing the dough down as you roll. About 2/3 of the way through rolling, tuck in ends and continue to roll.
- To seal, stop rolling with about 1” of clean dough remaining. Bring the edge of the dough up to the top of the roll and pinch tightly to seal. Gently give the log a few rolls to help seal and even out the shape.
- On a silicone baking mat or parchment paper lined sheet pan, carefully place the log, seam side down. You may have to arrange the loaf on a diagonal to fit.
- Spray the loaf lightly with cooking spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel.
- Place in a warm spot and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, place a baking or pizza stone in the lowest oven position and preheat to 375°F for at least 30 minutes.
- Brush top of the loaf with the egg wash and slash the top 4-5 times with a sharp knife.
- Place the sheet pan directly on the baking stone and bake for 25 minutes.
- Rotate the pan and bake for another 20 minutes until golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
- Let cool before cutting. The bread is best if served within a day. Keep any leftovers tightly wrapped.