Anyone who has tried to make bread at home knows there are three essential ingredients:
- 1. some combination of flour, water, salt, and *live* (as opposed to dead in the cupboard 3 year old) yeast
- 2. a very very very hot oven
- 3. a patient baker
Anyone who knows me, knows I am sorely lacking one item here, which is partly why I rarely make bread at home. With so many excellent bread bakeries in and around Boston – think Clear Flour, Hi Rise, Fornax, even Iggy’s – it’s not only hard to get motivated, but also hard to replicate quality loves at home.
Nevertheless, approximately once a year, usually when I find myself wrapped in wool and spending an afternoon at home, I get the itch to fill my kitchen with the glorious smell of freshly baked bread and pretend I live on an idyllic goat farm somewhere in Southern France. Don’t ask. No idea how I came to equate goat farming with bread baking, but it’s where my mind goes.
And so, I’ll break out the flour and the yeast and get to work making what all too often turns out to be a very disappointing loaf of bread. Dense and flabby, my homemade loaves are never the blistering, open-textured, chewy specimens of my imagination. Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about soft-white bread here. I make a mean brioche, potato rolls, and even english muffins. I’m after something more hearty, rustic, and savory.
Probably my greatest bread-baking shortcoming is my inability to keep a starter living more than 24 hours. It’s the usual neglect related cause of death every time, but somehow I blame the starter itself or the recipe. Rest easy: I am much more attentive to the dog.
All this to say, I have long considered myself a bit of a bread baking failure.
Enter today’s recipe. An adaptation of an archived Food 52 recipe for Pain a l’Ancienne, I was drawn to the recipe not only by the beautiful photo (blistering! rustic! hearty!), but also by the directions, which required no starter, no special equipment, and very little fuss.
And the results? Finally, a home-baked bread that lives up to my expectations – moist and chewy, with a crackling crust, it hits the heat of the oven and explodes, creating a light and bubbly crumb. Warm and slathered in salted butter, this bread is about the best thing to come out of my kitchen in a long while.
One Year Ago: My Dad’s Yorkshire Puddings. (Speaking of delicious things to come out of the kitchen, this is an all-time favorite.)
The recipe here produces 4 medium loaves, and the dough also makes an excellent pizza crust. Lately, I’ve been mixing the dough on Saturday, then baking off 3 loaves on Sunday afternoon along with a pizza for lunch.
I adapted things only slightly from the original source, providing measurements in weight to keep things consistent from my kitchen to yours, and also adding a bit of extra water. The recipe calls for an overnight rest in the refrigerator, which gives the yeast time to slowly ferment and adds great flavor – don’t skip this step!
Ciabata Bread or Pizza Dough
- 3 cups / 708g ice cold water, divided (I fill a large pitcher with ice and cold tap water and pour from there to measure.)
- 2 tsp / 7g active dry yeast (I like red star for bread)
- 6 cups / 908g bread flour + more for dusting
- 1/3 cup / 35g toasted wheat germ
- 2 tsp / 6g kosher salt
- 1 tsp / 7g olive oil (optional)
- Cornmeal for dusting
Combine ¼ cup water (70g) and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a hook attachment. Let sit 5 minutes until frothy. Add the remaining 2 ¾ cups (638g) water, the flour, wheat germ, salt, and olive oil (if using.) Make sure to add the salt on top of the flour, rather than on top of the yeast – direct contact will kill off some of your yeast. Mix until a dough is formed and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Continue mixing an additional 5 minutes to kneed the dough. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate 24 to 36 hours.
The next day, dump the dough our on a well-floured counter. Cover well with flour and press the dough into a rectangle about 8 inches by 8 inches (20 centimeters by 20 centimeters.) Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature 1 ½ to 2 hours depending on the temperature of your kitchen – the dough should be slightly risen, but still cool to the touch.
Half an hour before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 500 degrees and set a caste iron pan on the bottom shelf, near the door – you’ll be pouring water into the pan, so want it as accessible as possible. Line a large sheet pan with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal. Have ready ½ cup of cold water in a cup or dish beside your oven.
Once the dough is proofed, cut it into quarters using a floured bench knife or sharp kitchen knife. With the sheet pan next to you, take a quarter section of dough and gently lift it up – the dough with stretch and sag between your hands. Stretch to approximately 12 inches (30 centimeters) and set the dough lengthwise across the sheet pan. Repeat with a second piece of dough, setting it next to the first.
Place the sheet pan in the preheated oven and quickly pour the ½ cup water into the caste iron pan. Shut the oven door, and reduce the heat to 450 degrees. Set the timer for 12 minutes – do not open the oven door! (You want to trap the steam.) After 12 minutes, rotate the bread 180 degrees and bake an additional 4 minutes. Remove and cool.
To bake the next two breads, return the oven to 500 degrees and allow to preheat 15 minutes before repeating the stretching and baking process – don’t forget to add the ½ cup water for steam.
Begin by preheating the oven to 500 degrees 30 minutes before you are ready to bake the pizza. I skip the steam for pizza, as not as much oven lift is needed – so no need to have water ready or place the caste iron pan in the bottom of the oven.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal. Gently lift one quarter of the proofed dough and stretch it to fit the sheet pan – it should be quite thin in the center and only slightly thicker around the edge. Don’t worry about making the pizza perfectly rectangular, remember rustic = beautiful! Top your dough with toppings of choice – I generally use pizza as a vehicle to use up leftovers from my fridge. Just remember less is more; loaded pizzas never bake well. The pizza you see pictured is tomato sauce, leftover baked eggplant, slivered brussel sprouts, mozzarella and parmesan drizzled in a little olive oil and with a shake of chili flakes + sea salt.
Bake the prepared pizza 10 minutes at 500 degrees. Then, rotate 180 degrees and reduce the heat to 450 degrees – continue baking until golden brown, crisp, and bubbling 3-6 minutes more. Serve immediately.