What fun I had recently, mixing up my first batch of Ciabatta dough. Ciabatta is a rustic-looking, light textured oval loaf, perfect for splitting lengthwise to make a pan bagna—stuffed Italian sandwiches or panini—grilled Italian sandwiches.
I've been a novice bread baker for over 40 years. I remember standing in the kitchen after putting the boys to bed, mixing and kneading a cool rise white bread that rivaled Pepperidge Farm. I thought that was an accomplishment. Little did I know that there were far better, chewy, dense, fragrant artisan breads, lovingly kneaded then baked in brick ovens. I led a sheltered life growing up. White air bread was the norm in our house.
Americanized Italian Rustic Bread
After several bread baking classes at Harriet's Kitchen, in the early '90's, and after studying and practicing the methods and techniques of Nancy Silverton and The Village Baker, Joe Ortiz, I was well on my way to producing rustic, full flavored loaves with crunchy crusts and soft, moist interiors. Faithful to each episode of Baking with Julia on PBS, I watched pros measure, mix, knead, shape and bake a wide variety of the basic food that has been with us since man discovered fire.
Bread is served at every meal and in between. When there is nothing else to satisfy, a slice of bread, plain or toasted, slathered with everything from suet, to baked beans, to peanut butter and jelly have provided a fast, nourishing meal or snack. Man probably could live by bread alone, as long as it's made of whole food ingredients and not filled with air and synthetic chemicals. My bread doesn't have a very long shelf-life. It's eat it up or freeze it. Both are easy to do.
There is something so relaxing, almost therapeutic, about working with yeast dough. Is it the aroma or the sensual touch of kneading soft, yielding dough? Is it the miracle of putting together a little flour, salt, yeast and water and watching this blob of dough rise to the top of the bowl? Or the fun of poking a finger into that light airy bowl of dough and watching it deflate like a balloon that has lost its air? Or is it the sense of pride, the soul-satisfying accomplishment as we pull that handmade baked loaf from the oven, the whole house delightfully perfumed with a hot, yeasty aroma?
Millions upon millions of home bakers have mastered the art of baking bread. Some for the sheer joy of doing it; most to keep body and soul together. In this day and age, with so few healthy shelf choices, we bake bread for the sake of our health, but the sheer joy of accomplishment is in no way diminished.
Hot from the oven, Ciabatta dipped in first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil with Italian herbs and freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, vine-ripened organic tomatoes and fresh basil from the garden is perfect for a light lunch or makes a great starter.
Two steps are required — plan ahead.
1. Starter, (sponge, biga) is mixed up the night before: Combine 1/2 tsp instant yeast; 1/2 cup of tepid water; 1 1/2 cups of King Arthur Organic Unbleached All Purpose flour or White Whole Wheat flour, in a mixing bowl (I used the bowl of the Kitchen Aid mixer). Cover the bowl and allow to rest 12 hours or overnight.
2. Dough: To the biga (above) add: 1 tsp instant yeast; 1 1/2 tsp salt; 3/4 cup + 3 TBS water; 1 TBS olive oil; 2 cups King Arthur Flour (same type as used in the biga).
Procedure: Mix/knead all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer (10 minutes), a food processor (90 seconds), or a bread machine (dough cycle). The dough is much too slack to knead by hand, so you need to use a machine. Once mixed, let it rise, covered, for about an hour, it will easily double in size. Then flow the sticky dough into a rough 10 x 15 oval on a lightly greased baking sheet. Let it rise, covered, till very puffy, about 2 hours. Bake the Ciabatta in a preheated 425°F oven for about 25 minutes, until it's golden brown. Cool it in the turned-off oven with the door cracked open.
Till next time . . . keep on cooking.