I also told him the story of St Helena traveling to Jerusalem in search of the true cross; she noticed a patch of sweet basil growing on an otherwise-barren hill, dug beneath it, and found the Cross of Christ. "And that's why we're going to use basil in a special bread for supper," the story ended.
Last night, I decided that a basil bread would be a good way to tie in to the feast day, and would go well with the pork loin on the menu. It was going to be super easy: my usual French bread recipe, with a scattering of dried basil kneaded in. If I was feeling really fancy, maybe I'd even braid the loaf. Idly googling "braided basil bread", I stumbled upon this recipe. That's so beautiful! I thought. Ha, there's no way I'm even attempting something so fancy. Then I showed the picture to my half-Italian husband.
"That looks wonderful! That's what you're making tomorrow? Great!"
Onto the shopping list went fresh basil. Since I was getting the food processor dirty anyway, I figured I'd take advantage of it to make a bunch of pesto, so I got two packages of basil instead of one. It didn't quite all fit in the food processor at once, but after two-thirds of the leaves were chopped up, I was able to fit the rest in. The whole kitchen smelled very basily! After measuring out the two-thirds cup that I needed for the bread, I still had enough pesto to fill 15 ice cube tray slots. I popped the tray into the freezer, and tomorrow or so I'll dump my nice little pesto cubes into a freezer bag.
For some unknown reason, I wasn't content to make this already-too-hard-looking bread exactly as the original recipe showed; I decided to one-up the original and braid my loaf into a cross. Because basil and the true cross and the feast day... And I'm maybe a little nuts. But it worked! No one was probably more shocked than I was with how it turned out, honestly. It really, truly, was much easier than it looks!
Braided Basil Cross Bread
4 oz (about 2 cups lightly packed) fresh basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts
Pulse together basil and cheese in the food processor. Drizzle in olive oil. Add garlic and nuts, pulsing until pretty smooth.
*This will make more than you need for the bread, so measure out 2/3 cup and freeze the rest in small amounts; to use later, thaw and dilute with olive oil.
1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
2 pinches sugar
2 1/2 to 3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
Grated Parmesan for on top
Stir yeast and sugar into water and proof. In a mixing bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups flour and salt (I used 1 cup spelt flour, the rest white flour). When yeast is bubbly, pour into flour along with olive oil. Mix together and knead for at least five minutes, adding more flour if it's too sticky. You should end up with a soft, very slightly sticky ball of dough. Cover and let rise until doubled, about an hour.
Lay down parchment paper on the counter, and lightly sprinkle with flour. Turn out the dough onto the parchment paper. [I had actually never used parchment paper before today, because I always figured it was a silly extra thing that you didn't really need; oh. my. goodness. did it ever make this easier! Totally worth it.] Stretch dough into a rectangle, rolling out to about 18"X12". If your pesto is very thick, dilute with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread pesto over dough, leaving about half an inch border.
Roll the dough up like you're making sweet rolls, long side over, and pinch the seam closed. Cut the rope into two pieces, one slightly longer than the other.
Pinch the cut ends closed. With a sharp knife, slice each rope in half lengthwise.
Keeping the cut sides up, position the four pieces in a cross such that the four strands weave together, each over one and under one.
Twist each section of the cross together, being careful to keep the cut sides facing up. Pinch the two strands together at each end.
Slide the parchment paper with the cross on it onto a sheet pan. Allow bread to rest about a half hour. While it rests, preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Just before putting in the oven, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Slide the loaf off of the parchment paper onto a wire rack to cool.