Christmas cakes were baking, the famous pompou and fougasse, as they were called,
dear to the hearts of the children of old Provence.
~~ Christmas in Legend and Story A Book for Boys and Girls
I’ve always loved the “Jacob’s Ladder” look of fougasse. The lacy leaf-like lattice reminds me of the connection between bread and art, with that unspoken tie to pagan sacrifice, manifested in people- and animal-shaped holiday breads and sweets.
And, not surprisingly, fougasse is one of the Thirteen Desserts of Provençal Christmas festivities. Like so many foods, it goes by many names, the most common alternatives being La Gibacié and La Pompe à l’huîle, scented with orange flower water and anise.
“Fougasse” stems etymologically from the ancient Roman panis focacius cooked in the ashes of wood fires, Latin for hearth being “focus.” I find it logical that later these flat loaves served as “testers” for the temperature of wood-burning ovens, as some have suggested. The slashes helped to increase the surface area of the bread and ensure crispier, faster-cooking loaves.
But there’s another, less scientific, side to this bread.
Cooks cut various patterns into the dough when they slashed it: leaves as mentioned above, trees, stars, and sunflowers.
All gifts of nature, things of beauty to people who probably never saw great art hanging on their walls. Offerings of thanks and reverence.
Fougasse with Black Olives
Makes 4 loaves
8 cups bread flour
1 T. fine sea salt
1 T. dry yeast
1/4 t. sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted and slivered oil-cured olives
1 – 2 T. dried herbes de Provence (optional)
Egg white for glazing
Note: To make fougasse Christmas style, leave out the olives and the herbes de provence. Add instead 2 t. crushed anise or fennel seeds, 1 T. orange-flower water, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1 T. grated orange zest.
Put the flour into a mixer, heavy-duty food processor, or large mixing bowl. Add salt and mix in. Put the yeast into a liquid measuring cup and add 2 cups tepid water and sugar. Let yeast proof until bubbly. Pour yeast into flour/salt mixture. Add water and mix until flour starts to look moistened, then add the oil. Continue stirring/mixing/whatever until dough forms a ball. Knead in your machine or on a floured surface until dough is soft and pliable, length of time depends on your mixing method. Lightly grease a large clean mixing bowl with shortening or olive oil and put dough ball in, turning over once to coat the dough with the grease. Cover with a wrung out damp towel. Let rise until double, about 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough and put it back on a floured surface; knead in the olives and the herbes de Provence, if using.
Let dough rest a few minutes covered with a clean dry towel. Divide dough into fourths and roll out each one on the floured surface to a thickness of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Make the shape into an elongated oval. Slash the dough in a pattern of your choosing and place on a baking sheet sprinkled liberally with coarse cornmeal. Cover with a clean dry towel. Repeat for all loaves. Let rise about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400. Paint each fougasse with the egg white mixed with about 1 T. cold water and bake fougasse about 25 – 30 minutes or until crisp. Let cool on racks and serve. Loaves may be frozen tightly wrapped in foil and then placed in plastic bags.
To be continued …
Be sure to read other posts on Provence’s Thirteen Desserts:
No Partridges, Just Thirteen Desserts HERE
Lillet by Another Means: Vin d’Orange, or, French Christmas Spirit HERE
Citron* (Cédrat), Jewel-Like Morsel of Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE
One of the Thirteen, the Tangerine HERE
Begging the Question: Les Quatre Mendiants and Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE
© 2010 C. Bertelsen