I’ve written recently about my modest luck in the past when tackling festive breads, but I thought I would have another go this year. Meet the pompe à l’huile, which hails from the south of France.
The name refers to the shape of an old olive oil press (rather than an “oil pump” – a pompe à huile). It is a lightly sweetened bread made with young and fruity extra-virgin olive oil, which would normally still be just a few weeks old when making this around Christmas time. It also happens to be natually vegan if you brush the loaf with water rather than milk just before baking.
In addition to olive oil, it is traditionally flavoured with orange blossom water. I must admit I was more than a tad dubious as it can be very much like perfume and it is easy to add too much. But I thought I would give it a try as I could always make another if got too heavy-handed.
If you are using it, a little word of warning – check exactly what you are using, as you can get anything from very dilute to highly concentrated, and when it’s pure it is extremely powerful. Helpfully it is not always clear exactly what you’ve got, so I can’t give a more specific guide other than to say just be careful and remember you can add more but you can’t take away! If you can’t get hold of orange blossom water, a passable substitute is to use orange zest, plus a little vanilla extract and a dash of almond extract. It’s not the same, but you do get a sweet, floral and citrussy aroma that works in a pinch.
The stuff I got was from a Turkish grocery, and two tablespoons were quite enough to give it all the flavour and perfume I wanted. If you’re using the concentrated stuff, you may find just half a teaspoon does you.
As this is traditional French loaf, I assumed there would a clear single way to make it. Oh, how wrong I was. I found there are lots and lots of frankly dodgy recipes out there which are going to provide some strange results. One suggested equal weights of flour and olive oil, which would be marvellous if you just wanted greasy flour, and I discounted that one right away. Another suggested using no pure water, just orange blossom water. Either they were using something that was extremely dilute of they are the sort of person that enjoys swigging Chanel No 5 with their morning coffee. Next!
Anyway, I initially settled on a recipe which was about five parts flour to one part oil. I selected this one on the basis that surely the oil was important and therefore there should still be a lot of it in the dough. All seemed fine during the kneading even if it was a bit greasy, and it was easy to shape and bake, but it ended up being heavy and claggy (great word by the way!).
But I was determined to succeed. I kept looking and saw that several sources refer to this as being akin to an “olive oil brioche”. My first attempt was definitely not like brioche. That made me think that actually what I wanted was to keep the dough light, and that the oil was there more for flavour and aroma than to pool around the base of the bread as it baked.
My second attempt (and the recipe you see below) came out very differently. The dough was much more like an enriched dough and was not oily at all. It rose proved perfectly, and the resulting loaf was golden when it came out of the oven. It got a light brushing of more extra-virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of sugar. It looked lovely and was light and aromatic when we ate it. You get the orange blossom flavour, but it is not overpowering.
So…I had made a pleasant slightly sweet dough. Had it all been worth it? Well, I also read that traditionally this would have been eaten with grape jam, which is not something I have in the house or actually ever see when I’m out and about. So instead I used blackcurrant jam made with fruit from my mum’s garden (and I carefully carried that container of berries all the way back from Scotland in the train to London to make that jam!). It was, quite simply, amazing. A complete flavour sensation. The bread is light, sweet and aromatic, and it merges just wonderfully with sharp dark fruit jam. I’m glad I persevered – it’s very different to most Christmas baking, and absolutely delicious.
To finish off, it is worth knowing a bit more about the pompe à l’huile. It forms part of the Provençal tradition of the Thirteen Desserts. While this might sound like a truly epic way to finish a meal, it is not actually a seemingly endless supply of little cakes. Instead it is a tradition that is rich in symbolism, and there are thirteen elements representing those present at the Last Supper – Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.
There is not a single fixed list of the Thirteen Desserts, but you find there are some common treats and then local variations depending on their specialities. For example, you will find fresh fruit, dark and light nougat, dates, and the “four beggars” standing for four monastic communities – almonds for the Carmelites, figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Dominicans and walnuts for the Augustinians. Then there are a few regional variations (which probably also reflect the tastes of the host or hostess) and can include calissons from Aix, made from candied melon and almonds, or navettes from Marseille. I really like the idea of this tradition, as it is fun at the end of a meal to have little things to nibble on as you chat about anything and everything with your family and friends. Maybe not the high drama of setting fire to a plum pudding as the British do, but probably one that is more suited to the end of a large meal.
Traditionally there would be one loaf for Christmas Eve, and a second to enjoy for breakfast on Christmas Day. A few people suggest hot chocolate as the prefect accompaniment, which sounds pretty good to me. I just wonder if you would find that it lasted that long if you’ve got hungry people in the house?
To make pompe à l’huile (makes 1 loaf)
For the dough
• 250g strong white flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 50g sugar
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• zest of 1/2 orange
• orange blossom water (or use vanilla and almond extract)
• milk (to glaze, optional – skip to make a vegan version)
• olive oil
• caster sugar, to sprinkle (optional)
1. Put the orange blossom water into a measuring jug. Make up to 130ml with cold water.
2(a). If using a bread machine: put everything into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples! [But do check the consistency – you might have to add more flour or water if the mixture seems too wet or too dry]
2(b). If making by hand: put the flour, salt, sugar and oil into a bowl and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients and work with your hands until you have a dough. Start to knead it until it is smooth, stretchy and elastic (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for two hours until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.
3. Put a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. On the paper, roll or press the dough out to an oval around 1cm thick. Use a wooden spatula with a straight edge to make a cut in the centre. Make 8 more cuts in the same way so that the dough looks like a wheel. Stretch the dough a little so that the holes are prominent. Put the whole baking sheet in a large plastic bag and leave somewhere warm to prove for at least an hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the top of the bread with milk if using. Put a pan of hot water into the bottom of the oven to create steam. Add the bread and bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour.
4. When they loaf is baked, remove from the oven, and brush lightly with more extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with caster sugar, and leave to cool.