I would suggest experiencing muffuletta for the first time the way I did: exhausted and sitting at your departure gate in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I have to admit I was not entirely sure what to expect from the experience. This legendary sandwich had been suggested with enthusiasm by nearly everyone who heard about our planned trip to the South, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. It’s all… soggy-looking, I thought. My Californian sensibilities took exception to the lack of vegetables. Last on our list before our return flight, I wasn’t even particularly perturbed by the thought of missing out in the event that we ran out of time. Luckily – and for emphasis, I’ll add a few stars – **luckily** my experienced travel partner knew what she was doing.
With the influx of Italian immigrants in the 19th century, the owners of Central Grocery – the alleged birthplace of this sandwich – established a stable and hungry base of customers. They would serve a lunch of sliced meats and cheeses with a little olive salad to local farmers, and this rich combination eventually migrated into the fresh, round Sicilian loaves of bread so often served with the meal. While the barrels where these farmers sat to eat have been replaced by stools and a proper countertop, the old-world charm remains. A wooden sidewalk outside, shaded by the wrought-iron porches of second-level flats, leads past an unimposing front door. Inside, several degrees cooler than the sticky heat of the French Quarter outside, are shelves lined with jars of giardiniera and bottles of imported olive oil, while hand-painted signs compete with Italian flags and Bud Light banners on the walls. In a country of strip malls and cheap fast food palaces, its unique atmosphere is welcome. Behind the counter, however, lies the true source of Central Grocery’s enduring appeal.
Each sandwich is made from a full loaf of bread – about 10 inches in diameter (as you’ll see) – so you are given the option of ordering from one to four quarters. We ordered the full size (because, let’s be honest, a measly three quarters ain’t gonna cut it for three hungry ladies). We then carried our prize out of the door, my curiosity growing now that I had been treated to visions of salami hanging from the ceiling and sparkling jars of juicy olives. We packed up, submitted to the process of returning the rental car, and dragged our sandwich-laden bags into the terminal. On the molded plastic airport chairs, feeling like I was covered in two weeks’ worth of road grime and still recovering from a 2-day hangover, I took my first bite.
I closed my eyes at one point to better enjoy it: the salty, savory layers of peppery salami and mild cheese, the pickled tartness of the olives and the way they soaked into the soft, sesame-studded bread. The dismal, low-budget corporate décor of my surroundings faded, my exhaustion dimmed, and silence fell on our little group. When it was over, we piled into the plane and returned home, certain that nothing in our dear Bay Area could match the delight we had just shared.
After a few months back on the West Coast, it became abundantly clear that the only way we were going to get close to that experience without springing for a cross-country flight was to recreate it ourselves. We sifted through olive salad recipes until we found one to our liking (with a generous approach to the olive oil, as usual) and made a visit to our local Andronico’s olive bar for ingredients. A trip to Zarri’s Delicatessen in Albany reassured us in our aims; we were greeted there by brightly marbled soppressata, lace-thin slices of prosciutto, jaunty rounds of mortadella, and an array of plump cheeses. Shopping bags brimming with savory treats (prompting a moral struggle in the car over whether to leave the ingredients unmolested), we headed to the kitchen.
We had earlier determined that sourcing the fluffy, sesame-encrusted bread that makes muffuletta so distinctive was going to be an impossible task, so we agreed to roll up our sleeves and bake our own. Due to an honest misreading of the instructions (requiring twice the rising time we had anticipated), we had more than enough time to mix together the rich, savory olive salad and let it marinate in the fridge. The kitchen was by now filled with the warm, yeasty scent of baking bread, and we impatiently awaited the debut of our fine loaf. If you use the recipe below, give yourself plenty of time – the bread can sit for as long as you need it, but if you pull it out to begin slicing immediately, you’ll have to come prepared with a pair of firefighter gloves to withstand the heat radiating from its golden-brown crust.
At last, it was done; at last, we could eat! With a series of relatively graceful maneuvers (if I do say so myself), the steaming muffuletta loaf was sliced horizontally, and we began layering juicy olive salad and salty slices of meat and cheese in a dizzying arrangement. The towering monument stood before us on the counter in all its glory, dazzling us for a split second. Then we grabbed a sharp knife, carved it up equally, and summarily demolished it. Later, unable to move, we sat recalling our vacation and celebrating our success with contented, self-congratulatory smiles.
Muffuletta Bread Recipe (Adapted from Nola Cuisine)
makes 1 loaf
- 1 Cup Warm Water (110 degrees F)
- 1 Tbsp Active Dry Yeast
- 1 Tbsp Granulated Sugar
- 2 Cups All Purpose Flour
- 1 Cup Bread Flour
- 1 1/2 tsp Iodized Salt
- 2 Tbsp Lard or Vegetable Shortening
- Sesame Seeds
- 3 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Combine the water, yeast and sugar in the workbowl of a stand mixer, stir well and let stand for 5-10 minutes or until good and foamy. Meanwhile, combine the flours, salt, and lard in a bowl and work in the fat with your hands until broken up into very small pieces. When the yeast is foamy, fit the mixer with a dough hook attachment and gradually add the flour on low speed until its all incorporated. Scrape the sides down between additions. When the dough comes together, turn it onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, 5-10 minutes, adding more flour if necessary.. Alternatively, you can let the machine do the work, but for me, bread is a touch thing. Coat a large bowl with the Olive Oil, then put the dough in, turning once to coat both sides. Cover loosely with a clean dry towel, or plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1-1/2 hours. Punch the dough down and shape into a flat round about 9 inches across (it will expand to about 10″.) Place the dough on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Brush the surface with Olive Oil and sprinkle the top with sesame seeds, about 2-3 Tbsp should do it, then press them lightly into the dough. Loosely cover the loaf and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. When the dough has risen, remove the cover, gently brush with the egg wash then gently place into a preheated 425 degree F oven for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 375 degrees F for an additional 25 minutes or until it’s golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.
Olive Salad (Adapted from Food52)
- 1 Cup Spanish Pimento Olives
- 1 Cup Pitted Black Olives (we used Kalamata)
- 8 Cornichons
- 2 Tbsp Dried Oregano
- 2 Cloves Garlic
- 2 Tbsp Red Wine Vinegar
- 3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In a food processor combine all ingredients and pulse a few times, careful not to over-pulse as you want your Olive Salad to remain chunky. Cover a refrigerate for about an hour before use.
Muffuletta (First We Eat)
Serves 4-5 hungry adults
- 1 Muffuletta Loaf (see recipe above)
- About 2 Cups Olive Salad (See Recipe Above)
- 1/4 Lb Thinly Sliced Prosciutto
- 1/8 Lb Thinly Sliced Mortadella
- 1/8 Lb Thinly Sliced Soppressata
- 1/4 Lb Thinly Sliced Provolone Cheese
Take your Muffuletta load and cut in half, then spread the olive salad mixture on both sides of the loaf equally. This will allow both sides of the bread to soak in some of the olive oil from your olive salad. Next we layered provolone on both sides followed by the Soppressata, Mortadella, and finally, the Prosciutto. Putting the meats and cheeses on both sides is helpful since flipping the top of the sandwich with just olive salad would likely lead to a big olive salad mess. Once all your meats and cheeses are layered, carefully flip the top of the sandwich onto the bottom half and push lightly to meld the two sides.
This 9″ round sandwich lends itself well to sharing, so cut it as you would a pie, into as many different pieces as there are people you are willing to share with, and enjoy!