So last Sunday I baked twenty-six loaves of ciabatta.
There is still flour everywhere. Please do not form any unnecessary visuals, but I really do mean everywhere.
I envisioned the experience as a way to thank my friends: for their kindness lately, their supportive blog comments despite my lackluster posting, their random emotional support through my first depression-free winter since 1983, their rides home from the dentist, interpersonal advice and overall spunk and awesomeness.
And, frankly, I find these elaborate, hastily-conceived messes a crucial antidote to my often hyper-cautious nature. A reminder that I can, if need be, summon within me the self assurance to go salsa dancing or the whimsical abandon to build forts out of appliance boxes.
At the same time, there was a self-centered, purely culinary angle. I have been absolutely agonizing over this bread for fourteen months now. I’ve poured over nuances in kneading and ways to just slightly change oven humidity. And still, every Sunday, I nervously clench my serrated knife each time as the test approaches. Did I get the texture right? Are the holes gonna be there? Sometimes I get so emotionally invested that I’m actually afraid to cut in.
Yes, the bread is worth it. Starter-driven breads have a luscious, almost acidic tang, the result of capturing so much carbon dioxide during their fermentation process, and that long rise time allows the nutty, earthy nuances in the flour to emerge.
And then, of course, there are the holes.
Ciabatta has this signature crumb structure of cavernous holes extending evenly through the loaf. And while many no-knead breads can mimic that structure, ciabatta actually has a very soft, tender feel to it (something no-knead lacks), and when “the holes” turn out right, the tangyness and the softness sort of “spread out” in a really nice, ethereal way. Bakery ovens can cook much hotter (and therefore quicker) than home ovens. It’s trickier trying to acheive this structure at home.
Which brings me to why I needed to make peace with this recipe. Even if the structure doesn’t always work out, this loaf always tastes amazing.
So last Saturday night I duplicated this recipe about 11 times. The formula is Peter Reinhart’s, from his book, “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” despite all of my self-induced disappointments and sloppyness with the technique, the ingredients/ratio have never let me down in terms of taste. The method, however, is one I adapted from a consise blog post.
Several starters done, I tried to go to bed Saturday evening from about 5PM to Midnight. I don’t think I actually achieved sleep due to my mix of anticipation and dread. But the alarm went off, a quick pork chop was seared, a Vietnamese Coffee was chugalugged, and it was on. Counter full of mis-en-place, scale at the ready, multiple cascading timers getting the kneads right, multiple makeshift cooking platforms ready to accept the loaves…
And a LOT of baking.
Friends started showing up by 7:30. I must have been a sight. My unshaven face speckled with clumps of dough, dragging a tailwind of King Arthur’s down my little steps to hand my friends a clumsily produced loaf of bread and a bit of mayo. I hate to admit this, I was so tired that I didn’t realize who Stephanie was for a second until I realized she was wearing her chef Hammer Pants.
Nathan and Anna finally rounded out the festivities at about 1PM, bringing their Aero-Press coffee maker over for a test brew. It became the most wonderful cup of coffee I didn’t want. I took a nodoze at 2PM and slept until the next morning. It was worth it.
For the Starter:
11.25 oz bread flour
12 oz room-temperature water
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast.
Stir the yeast into the flour. Add the water, and mix thoroughly by hand. This is not the time to be precious. The dough will be seem dry for a moment but will still turn sticky.
Cover the starter with plastic wrap for about 8-12 hours or until the dough is a wet, stringy mess of evenly distrubuted bubbles as below.
For the Ciabatta
1 recipe starter (see above)
13 1/2 oz (about 3 cups) of bread flour
1 1/2 t instant yeast
2 t kosher salt
3/4 C warm water
2 T olive oil (optional but tasty)
dried herbs or fresh rosemary, if desired (I typically omit, but sometimes another layer of flavor is nice)
Pour 1/2 C of the water into the starter and stir (a refinement I learned here, which makes the sticky dough easy to extract into your prep bowl)
Once the slushy mass is in the prep bowl, add the remaining yeast and the olive oil, stirring to combine.
Begin folding in the flour, cup by cup. Add the salt after the first flour “add.”
Continue folding the flour in, a little bit at a time. Add water as needed. Be careful not to manhandle the dough – it should still feel wet and sticky, but also somewhat airy- the dough should give you the sense that you could squeeze it down to a fraction of its size if you had a mind to.
In fact, from this point forward, your goal to maintain and enhance that airyness. With so much moisture already built into the recipe, an airy structure will allow all that moisture to steam out as the break bakes. Again, it’s all about the holes.
Anyway. Once ingredients are combined, oil your rising vessel (I typically wash and use my starter bowl) – place the dough in your rising vessel, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rest for 45 minutes.
You are going to knead the dough in six stages. The first four stages are a simple stretch/pull, the second stage is a “stretch/pull/divide/long rise” and the final rise occurs while the oven preheats.
At 45 minutes (when the initial rest period is completed), perform your first “stretch/fold.” Dampen your hands and then grab the right edge of your dough ball, pull for several inches without breaking, and fold the dough back into the middle. Repeat with left, bottom and top edges. Finally, reach down into the bowl, lift the dough out, and flip. Recover. Rest for another 45. Minutes.
Repeat at 90, 135, and 180 minutes. Again, a total of four folds, occurring every 45 minutes after the ingredients are combined. The dough should look as below.
After the fourth rest period (a total of 225 minutes after the dough was combined) prepare a clean area, such as a cutting board or a large swath of counter space, to be used as long-rise area. I like to wrap plastic wrap around a cutting board and oil it down. Divide your dough into two equal masses, and place on the rising surface.
Place a well-oiled plastic over the top of each loaf, careful to oil as much plastic surface as possible. This is critical – if the dough sticks to the plastic, you will have to use force to remove the plastic. Said force will overpull the plastic, and damage the bread’s texture.
Anyway, let the dough rise for two hours.
Preheat your oven to 450, with a rack in the center.
Sidenote to fellow apartment dwellers, especially those with interconnected smoke alarm systems: Clean your oven occasionally, so that your occasional proclivity for high-heat baking at 3AM does not cause your wet laundry to be hurled upon the floor once in a while. Because you totally deserve it. Jerk.
Place a sheet of parchment paper on two baking sheets. Very gently (using a dough scraper if possible) lift the plastic film from your dough, gather it into a rough square shape, and fold it onto the parchment. Your unbaked loaves should resemble one of those frumpy Aunt Midge slippers.
Your oven should take about 30 minutes to preheat. At that point, you can bake your loaves, Go about 30-40 minutes until the entire crust, including the bottom, is a dark shade of golden. Extract to a cooling rack, and wait until the bread is completely cool before cutting in and realizing that your Sunday routine just became 75% more complicated.
Porkopolitans should serve with some sliced roast beef from Krause’s at Findlay Market, along with the pimenton mayonnaise you can probably goad a certain bacon blogger into making for you.