Let's face it, all of us aspiring chefs want to be able to make everything, right? But I know, at least for me, some things are just harder to conquer than others. Maybe some of you struggle with baking, maybe grilling is a challenge, et cetera. But the bain of my existence for many years was bread, fresh out-of-the-oven homemade bread. I tried making it by hand. I bought a stand mixer. I bought a bread machine. Nothing but failure. I tried for at least 15 years before it finally clicked. I always blamed the yeast, but that wasn't the culprit. I blamed inaccurate measuring, but that was wrong too. The issue was twofold: Water temperature and proofing. But, finally, about a year ago, it really clicked. I stopped taking the temperature of the water. I found a foolproof way to proof the bread. Voila! I'm a bread-baker!
The very first bread I was successful at is Ciabatta. I followed a recipe from the book "Artisan Baking Across America" by Maggie Glezer, citing Craig Ponsford's Ciabatta. I almost had tears in my eyes as I pulled the flour-striped bread from the oven. I got several high-fives from my husband and children. We stood around the kitchen counter pulling hunks off and dipping it in butter. I didn't even cook the dinner I had planned for that night because we were all full from the bread! The word "Ciabatta" means slipper in Italian. It has a dense, crispy crust with a soft center full of large holes. It's delicious.
So back to my lightbulb moments...to get the water temperature right, I hold my wrist under running water. When the feel of it is right between too hot and almost hot (great accuracy, huh), I know the water is ready. The best way I can explain that to you is it's the right temperature when it's almost too hot to hold your hand there. Play with it. You'll get it.
The second trick I learned from a lady at work (I work in a restaurant/bakery). She proofs, or rises, her cinnamon rolls every day in a warm oven. Ding, ding, ding! That's it. So my trick is to preheat your oven to 200 degrees. When it's there, turn it off and crack the door. When you can touch the rack with your hand without burning it, it's ready. Put the dough in the oven and shut the door. Finish your rise in there. Trust me, it's perfect every time.
Since that glorious, bread-conquering day, I've made all kinds of bread, baguettes, big soft pretzels, bagels, English muffins, French bread, to name a few. I usually make some kind of bread on Sunday to go with dinner.
So here's my adapted version of that first Ciabatta. It involves what's called a biga, also known as a sponge, which is a fermented dough made the day before the real dough and baking process. Eat it alone, with butter, or make bread bowls with it. Yes, it's labor-intensive, but it's so worth it!
1/8 teaspoon highly active yeast
3/4 C water, 110-115 degrees
2 C flour
1/4 C whole wheat flour
2 C bread flour
1 packet highly-active yeast
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 C water, 110-115 degrees
At least 20 hours before making the dough, make the biga. Put the water and yeast in a stand mixer and let it get foamy, about five minutes. Stir in the flour and wheat flour. Place this in a greased bowl that is at least three times the size of the biga. Cover it and let it sit out on your counter overnight and until you're ready to make the dough. It usually doesn't change or grow until you're closer to the 20 hours.
When it's time to make the dough, combine all the dough ingredients in a stand mixer and knead until combined. This dough should be really "gloppy," which means it looks more like a thick batter than dough. That's the way it's supposed to look. If it doesn't look that way, add small amounts of warm water until it does.
Scrape the dough mess into a really large greased bowl. Set a timer for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, scrape this mess out onto a really well-floured board. Sprinkle flour over the top. Turn it and fold it back onto itself and return it to the bowl. Repeat this process three more times. You'll be amazed at how this glop turns into a much drier dough. After you turn it a fourth time, let it rest another 20 minutes.
After the last rest, divide the dough into two and shape it howver you like, slipper-like that's kind of elongated or round, whichever you prefer. This is the time to let it proof in the oven in the manner I stated above. Let it rest another 20 minutes.
Time to bake! Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Bake it anywhere between 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven. It should be well browned on the outside and sound hollow when thumped. Let cool before slicing (if you can!).