Sometimes, things that shouldn’t go together end up as best friends.
My college roommate L was a year ahead of me at the University of Missouri. By all measures of common sense, our pairing should have been disastrous. L was a biochemistry major, slogging through higher math and even higher science courses. I was a journalism major, enjoying my first year of liberal arts study. I spent my days unraveling literary themes and Renaissance history while she dissected the finer points of organic chem. She tutored and hung out at the library; I made a home for myself in the dance department and experimental theater lab.
L was analytical and stoic. I was dreamy and emotional. We had our share of rows (especially the weekend I raided her stash of cinnamon graham crackers). But she added practical ballast to my imaginative whims. And — I like to think — I gave her a touch of unpredictability. We lived together until she graduated.
All these years later, we’re still friends. We get together whenever I visit Kansas City or she finds herself in DC. We can go for months without talking, then pick up a conversational thread like we saw each other last week.
I thought about L this weekend. Asked to host a cocktail party, I turned to a dish I make again and again. Like L and I, it shouldn’t work: Grapes and sugar; fennel and pepper — all wrapped up in a layered yeast bread.
But like the best friendships, those disparate parts create something quite special. Lose the sweetness of the grapes and sugar, and you have a ho-hum, savory loaf. Toss out the savory spices, and you end up with something rather cloying.
Served with smoked fish, stuffed olives and an assortment of Spanish and French cheeses, this is a sweet + savory dish that gets guests talking. And who knows? Maybe a few friendships will be forged.
Sweet + Savory Grape & Fennel Bread
Adapted from “Bon Appetit,” this bread is wonderful for a cocktail party, a brunch or a dinnertime starter. Just be sure to bake it for the entire time. Otherwise, you’ll have pockets of uncooked dough surrounding your grapes.
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1 envelope active dry yeast
- 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 4 cups stemmed red seedless grapes
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- Zest from 2 small lemons
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
Place the warm water in a large bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over it and stir to combine. Let the mixture stand until the yeast dissolves and gets foamy, about 10 minutes.
Whisk 1/2 cup flour into the yeast mixture until it’s smooth and lump-free. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place for 1 hour.
After the hour has passed, place the remaining 1 1/4 cups flour in the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer. Add the water/yeast mixture, the olive oil and salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Using a dough hook, mix for 5 minutes.
Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces. On a well-floured surface, roll each piece into a 12-inch round.
Place 1 round on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Scatter 1 cup of grapes over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Sprinkle the grapes with 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon fennel, the zest of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon thyme and more black pepper.
Cover with the second dough round. Turn the edges under, then press them together to make a tight seal. Cut 5, half-inch-long slits in the center of the dough, then scatter the remaining grapes, sugar, fennel, zest and thyme over the top. Sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt and some more pepper.
Cover the bread loosely with a dish towel and let it rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Bake the bread for 1 hour, covering it loosely with a piece of foil if it starts getting too brown. Cool completely before serving.