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Muffoletta bread

LOS ANGELES, California, USA ó Muffoletta bread refers to a special kind of bread.  The bread originated in Sicily hundreds of years ago.  The bread has a unique shape, with a softer crust and denser interior than most Italian bread.  Its form and texture make it ideal for filling and for sandwiches.

Because it is unique, the muffoletta bread is often difficult to find, and many bakers use the muffoletta name for bread that is not made in accordance with the authentic recipe.

Sicilian roots

Authentic muffoletta bread originated in Sicily hundreds of years ago.  Ingredients include the standard ones for making Italian bread:  flour, water, yeast, salt, shortening and sugar, plus fennel or sesame seeds for the top. 

Shape and form

The authentic muffoletta bread from Sicily is baked with a softer crust and a denser interioir than 'normal' Italian loaves.  Its shape is round (about 10" diameter) and lower in height than 'normal' loaves.  Fennel or sesame seeds usually top the loaves.  (Fennel seeds often top the muffoletta loaf in Sicily, where the bread was invented, while sesame seeds usually top the muffoletta in the U.S.) 

The authentic muffoletta is a pure bread.  That is, the ingredients consist only of flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt, shortening and (for the top) fennel or sesame seeds.  The breadís ingredients do not include hard wheat, brown flour, olives, rosemary or any of the other exotic additions often added by many artisan bakers.

Note: Traditional French and Italian breads are made with the identical ingredients in essentially the same way. The major difference between them is their shape: French bread tends to a long and round shape, like the baguette, while Italian tends to a round and thick shape, like the ciobatta.

Like all great breads, the muffoletta should be enjoyed and eaten on the same day it is baked.  The flavor peaks within a few hours if not minutes after being removed from the oven.  The texture of the bread reflects the warmth with a soft exterior which contrasts with the dense interior.

Shaped for filling

The shape of the muffoletta bread makes it ideal for stuffing.  The bread is round, thin and dense. 

In Sicily, residents fill the bread with cheese, fish or meat.  In New Orleans, Sicilian immigrants in 1906 created the famous sandwich with the bread, filling it with olive salad, meats and cheeses.  Because the bread is so dense, it absorbs the oil in the olive salad.  As a result, the sandwich retains the liquid ingredients without leaking.  Most Italian loaves lack the density to absorb the olive salad.

Unlike other Italian bread

For customers in many parts of the world, including the U.S., the surface and texture of the original muffoletta bread are unusual.  The exterior is softer and its interior is denser than customers expect.  Therefore, bakers today often use a different recipe to make a loaf which they call a muffoletta but which does not have the characteristic exterior or interior.  Most so-called muffoletta recipes produce a harder crust and lighter interior than the softer, denser original.

Care of bread

The muffoletta bread requires special care in handling and keeping.  Because muffoletta has a soft exterior and dense interior, the bread will become moldy much faster than other Italian bread.  Most Italian bread has a dry, hard crust, so it lacks the surface moisture to support bread mold.  Muffoletta, however, has a softer and moister exterior, so bread mold grows quickly.

To prevent mold from spoiling the muffoletta, the bread should be eaten as soon as possible after being baked, or it should be frozen.  Like all bread, muffoletta is best enjoyed when taken fresh from the oven.  However, unlike most other Italian breads, muffoletta is not harmed by freezing.

Perfect for freezing

Muffoletta bread may be frozen and thawed without harming the texture and flavor of the loaf.  Normally, Italian bread loses its texture if it isfrozen and then thawed, because the outer crust becomes soft and mushy, and the interior loses its light, airy texture.  However, muffoletta bread does not lose its texture when frozen and then thawed, because the exterior of the muffoletta is soft and the interior is dense.  Thus, muffoletta bread may be frozen.

Of course, the bread should be wrapped in freezer-quality plastic (which is much thicker than usual pastic wrap).  This prevents moisture from being absorted by the bread (remember that muffoletta is especially dense, so that it absorbs moisture more easily than other bread).  Properly wrapped and kept at a below-freezing temperature, muffoletta bread may kep in the freezer for several weeks.

To defrost the bread, do not remove it from its plastic wrapper.  Either leave the bread at room temperature to defrost over several hours or defrost in a microwave at the defrost setting (which is a low-temperature setting and cycles every 10 seconds between on and off).

Because few bakeries make authentic muffoletta bread, the ease of freezing it makes it helpful for consumers.  Several loaves may be purchased from a bakery and then defrosted and used as neeced.  In fact, several bakeries sell mail-order muffoletta bread and, upon request, will freeze the bread and ship it in its frozen state.  As a result, when the consumer receives the shipment after a few days, the bread is stale but is fresh-frozen and will be like freshly baked when defrosted.

Joe O'Connell is senior research specialist for Muffoletta Ltd., the official resource for information about the authentic muffoletta.

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