Ciabatta and an Airplane Book

Ciabatta BreadLast weekend we took a trip back to our old stomping grounds in Washington DC in order to see some friends and for my brother’s birthday. I had a brand new book for the plane which looked good, In Search of the Perfect Loaf by Samuel Fromartz, a book about a home baker’s obsession with bread. While reading on the flights I found myself wanting to bake some bread, and since the author talked mentioned ciabatta I decided that would be a good one for this week.

The ciabatta recipe in Carol Field’s The Italian Baker is one which calls for a very, very, wet and sticky dough. If there are wetter and stickier doughs out there, I haven’t met them. For the uninitiated, the first time working with such dough can be very frustrating. Usually the recipe will direct you to hand knead the dough but doesn’t tell you it’s almost impossible since the dough will stick like tar to everything. For me the trick to working with wet dough is: don’t touch it! Let the mixer do the work, and just leave it in the mixing bowl for the first rise. Putting it in an oiled bowl will not keep it from sticking. Also, use lots of flour on the board or counter when you’re working on shaping the loaves and the second rise. I know this probably goes against the rules as you don’t want the dough sucking up more flour but as a sometimes home bread baker I ‘knead’ my sanity.

Shaping is tough. Again, handle the dough as little as possible. Try to cut the dough into the size of the loaves you’d like then shape and put on some parchment paper. When I tried this recipe about a year ago I discovered the parchment paper the dough is lying on for the second rise really sticks (imagine that?). I ended up with meringue-like peaks on my ciabatta. The bread came out fine and tasted delicious but wasn’t winning any beauty contests. This time I put a little extra flour on the parchment paper so it wouldn’t stick when I flopped the loaves onto the baking stone. Worked great! However my shaping wasn’t the best and I over stretched the loaves, making them thin in the middle but fat on the ends. Brutti ma buoni. Still not winning any beauty contests but I solved one problem!

As far as In Search of the Perfect Loaf goes, it’s a mixed bag. A few of the chapters are really interesting, like the one on the baguette, but it gets very ‘wonky’ when the author goes on and on and on about different wheat and grains. Some of it is very interesting but you can only give the reader so much about the science of wheat and grain and gluten and milling. There are a couple things in it I’d like to try, like making a wild yeast sourdough starter and his baguette. Though it isn’t the best food book I’ve read, it did inspire me this week, even though my search turned up only an imperfect loaf.

Ciabatta (makes 4 loaves) from The Italian Baker by Carol Field

Make the biga (starter) the day before (yields 2 1/3 C, about 585 g)

  • ¼ tsp active dry yeast
  • ¼ C warm water
  • ¾ C plus 1 tsp water room temp
  • 330 g all purpose flour

Day One: Stir the yeast into the ¼ C warm water and let sit until creamy, 10 mins.

Stir in the remaining water and then the flour. Mix with your electric mixer for 2 minutes (or 4 by hand).

Place starter in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise on the counter for 6-24 hours. It will triple in size and be very wet and sticky. The longer you let it sit the more sour your bread will be. Biga can be frozen for later use, according to the book it will take about 3 hours to thaw at room temperature and become active again.

For the dough

  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • 5 Tbs warm milk
  • 1 C + 3 Tbs warm water
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 C Biga (500 g)
  • 500 g all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • cornmeal

Day Two: In a mixing bowl stir the yeast and milk together, let stand for about 10 minutes. Add the water, oil, and biga, mix until blended. Add flour and salt, mix for a few minutes {let sit for _ mins} mix some more {let sit} mix some more {let sit}.

First rise: Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 75 minutes, or until doubled in size. Since it is much wetter it is going to be a very sticky bubbly dough.

Shaping and second rise:

On a well floured cutting board (very sticky dough, you’ll see) cut the dough into 4 equal pieces, roll each piece into a cylinder and then stretch into rectangles about the width of your hand and the length of your forearm (4”x10”). Flour a piece of parchment paper on a baking peel or cutting board, place loaves seam side up on the parchment paper. Dimple the loaves so they don’t rise too much. Cover with a towel and let rise until almost doubled, about 1 ½ – 2 hours. Don’t worry if they look flat.

Pre-heat the oven to 425°F. Sprinkle baking stone with cornmeal. Carefully invert each loaf onto the stone. The parchment paper may stick a bit if you didn’t use enough flour. The book says peel it back carefully but if it’s sticking I say just leave it. It still bakes the bread. Spray the loaves with some water 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Cool on racks.

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