Monday, June 10, 2013

BakingLove: Ciabatta

To me, bread is life.

Any kind of bread.

Bread with good cheese, some fresh seasonal fruit and wine is one of my all-time favorite meals. Steamy fresh bread hot out of the oven, lightly spread with butter is simple- and heavenly. Stale bread makes the list too: cubed and tossed with tomatoes, onions, basil and vinaigrette is the base of Panzanella, the delicious Italian summer-time salad.

All countries have their cultural breads. Ireland has soda bread. Middle Eastern countries have lavash and pita bread. There is skolbrod and kneip in Norway and oatmeal bannocks from Scotland. The ubiquitous French baguette is one of France's most popular exports- dominating many other European breads. Italy took umbrage with their neighbor's bread success, however. The Italian answer to the popularity of baguettes is Ciabatta. Italian for "slipper" or "old shoe", ciabatta is a relative new-comer to global cultural breads, officially created in the mid 1980's.

Ciabatta is simple to make. Not quite as easy as French bread, but close. There are 5 ingredients: flour, salt, olive oil, water and starter. A starter is just flour and water mixed together in a container, covered
and left in the fridge for at least 24 hours. A starter can also be called a pre-ferment, poolish, biga, sponge, or levain. Differences are cultural and refer to wheat/water ratios. Back-breaking texts have been written on this subject, so suffice to know that the information is available if further study is desired.

Perhaps the most complicated part of making your own ciabatta is planning ahead. Yeast is optional. The beauty of using a starter in bread formulas is that the starter - even in the fridge- gathers natural yeast that is always present in the air around us. If you are in a hurry to produce a loaf, you can add a teaspoon or so to your batch to speed up the fermentation. If you choose to forgo the yeast in favor of a real natural yeast fermentation, you'll need most of the day to get your first rise.

When I am making bread at home, I almost never use a recipe. I've been making bread for over 20 years, and in the beginning I never deviated from the instructions. Once I began to really listen to the bread, and understand what it was saying, I only used a recipe when making large quantities of bread that I was being paid to make and was expected to be able to sell!
The only equipment you need is a bowl and a mixing spoon. Jewelery and watches should be removed and you should make friends with your naked hands. I use my 5 quart Pro-series Kitchen Aid mixer (the undisputed king of my kitchen), fitted with a dough hook to save time and limit messy clean-up.

Here is the "recipe" I used today, as close as I can relate when I am dumping ingredients into the bowl based on what the bread tells me. (My fellow professional bakers and pastry chefs are agog now, I'm sure. All in fun, folks!)

Winter'rest Farm Ciabatta
6 cups starter
3/4 cup EVOO
4 cups quality bread flour
1 1/2 TBSP salt
warm water as needed

Combine starter, flour and oil. Mix to incorporate. Add salt. (Note: salt can kill yeast, so I add it after the flour and other ingredients are blended. This seems to protect the yeast from the heavy
These "rags" tell you the formula has a good water/flour ratio
concentration of salt when it is added, before it is spread around the batch and loses it's potency. Also, add the salt before you add any water. Salt tightens the gluten and can render water unnecessary in some cases)
Add water if the batch is dry, a touch at a time. If the mix is wet, add a bit of flour at a time until the formula can be handled easily. (These are small batches of home-made bread. I would always use a tested recipe for larger batches or bread I was marketing- to maintain consistency)
Knead on the machine or by hand for 15-17 minutes. This sort of bread can be loose and sloppy. Don't let that worry you. It will come out fine!
Cover and place in a warm, draft-free place. My oven has a "Proof" setting. As long as the temperature of your proofing area is under 140 degrees, it will work. All yeast is killed at 140 degrees.
Once the dough has doubled in size, dump it onto a floured surface and pat into a rectangular shape.

Fold the dough envelope style,
 gather and flip onto a prepared sheet pan. Flip it so the underside that was on the floured surface is now facing up. Flour is the "garnish" for ciabatta, so dust the top lightly with flour.
Gather the "envelope"
Set aside to rise for 1-2 hours- but LISTEN to what the bread tells you. Some breads take more or less time time to complete this second rise. If it looks like it is rising quickly, get it into a 400 degree oven sooner. Bread that over-rises can deflate and collapse. Under-proofing can cause the bread to stretch and pop in undesired areas.

Don't be afraid!
Remove to prepared sheet pan

Flop over so the bottom is now on the top

Dust with flour and allow your ciabatta to rise a second time
At the end of the day, whether your ciabatta is under-proofed or flat from over-proofing, you will still have an edible hunk of bread that you made yourself. More than likely you will have a big, beautiful loaf of ciabatta that will feed you for most of the week, as long as you keep it bagged or wrapped in plastic to keep the air from staling it. Even after it stales, though, toast it and use it in recipes that call for toast, or whiz it in your food processor to make your own bread crumbs. If you don't think you'll eat the whole loaf in one week, cut it in half and freeze part of it. Bread freezes very well, as long as it's wrapped and not left more than 30 days or so.
Just have fun experimenting with bread. Fat or flat, round, square or buns, bread is good any time. Just no margarine, please!

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