Dec 042009

Flour. Water. Yeast. Salt. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? In fact, when you’re talking bread, it doesn’t get any simpler (unless you’re in Tuscany, of course).

A couple of slices from the second homey loaf with great shiny holes, drizzled with a bit of olive oil!
Nikon D50

But ingredient lists can be deceiving.
So it was with not fear, but a healthy dose of respect that I approached my seventh Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge bread: ciabatta. This is one of the wettest doughs out there – it has to be because that’s where the beautiful, big shiny holes come from. I know from experience that working with a rustic dough like this is a challenge. I’m not saying it isn’t fun – sticky, wet, messy fun – but it takes a certain amount of patience and an understanding of what you’re getting yourself into. Even then, I’d never worked with a dough quite this wet. I came in with high hopes yet a full understanding that I probably wouldn’t end up with cookbook-worthy holes the first time I tangoed with ciabatta.

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May 112008

Artisan French dough is an interesting animal. On one hand you have four – count ’em, four – ingredients. Not so hard, right? The thing is, it’s not the number of ingredients, it’s their proportion to each other. It’s a very hydrated dough compared to the multitude of sandwich loaves I’ve posted here previously, yet many of the requirements are the same.
The tricky requirement here is the kneading. Yes, this dough is a wet, sticky monster. And yes, you have to develop the gluten yourself. You don’t get to rely on a ridiculously long autolyze to do the hard work for you like you do in the famous no-knead bread (but it’s worth it – the pre-ferment makes for a far superior flavor). So how does one get the gluten to develop?

Some of you may quickly point out that KitchenAid stand mixers are proof that a god loves us and wants us to eat good bread. But I’ll point out even more quickly that the French have been making this bread before mixers were a twinkle in a baker’s eye, so there has to be some way to do it. And being the do-it-yourself-er that I am, I’m going to teach you how.

Like I said, you obviously can’t knead in the conventional fashion. Pushing, folding, and rotating translates into smearing, smearing, and smearing in the language of French dough. So instead of using force provided by your body, use the force provided by gravity to stretch, relax, and align those gluten strands and turn that yucky, sticky mess of flour and water into a ball of stretchy, supple, super-soft dough. Here’s an illustrated guide for how to do it:

Lay the heels of your hands on the dough, both thumbs pointing to the left (or the right, if you like. Just be consistent). Be sure your hands are positioned so that your thumbs are close to the edge of the dough and there is plenty of dough visible on the other side of your hand. Get your fingers underneath the dough.

Position your hands on the dough properly
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

Pick up the dough with your thumbs now pointing up instead of to the left. Allow the dough to hang down and let gravity stretch it out.

Pick up the dough and let gravity stretch it out
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

With a little flip (and without letting go of the top half of the dough), put the dough on the counter so that the side of the dough that was facing you when it was suspended in mid-air is now in contact with the counter. The upper half of the dough will still be in your hands.

Flip the dough onto the counter without letting go of it
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

With another flip, fold the dough in half and let go. You’ve just completed one knead. As you become more practiced it will become a more fluid motion. Continue to work the dough until it is smooth, elastic, supple, and less sticky than it was originally.

Fold the dough over and let go of it
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

None of the photos of the fully kneaded dough turned out, but the photo on the right shows it mostly kneaded, becoming smooth on the surface. Notice the huge difference between this and the shaggy unkneaded dough on the left.

Before: a sticky shaggy mess.  After: Smooth, elastic dough
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

During the kneading process, resist the urge to add too much flour to the countertop. The dough will still be a sticky mess and will get all over your hands, but only add more flour a tablespoon at a time if the dough is totally unworkable. Without a very wet dough you can’t get the irregular, beautiful open crumb that is the hallmark of a good artisan bread.

After kneading, the dough will rise several times. This is another time when you don’t handle the dough in the same way as a sandwich bread. Do not punch it down or deflate it. Instead you will stretch the dough out between your two hands. When you see this in pictures or on video it looks impossible, like no dough should be able to do that, but after a properly kneaded dough has risen for a little while it will be incredibly soft and elastic. It’s very easy to stretch the dough out as shown below:

Stretch the dough out - it's easier than it looks
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

Once the dough is stretched, fold it into thirds like a business letter. Rotate the dough packet 90 degrees and stretch and fold as before. Return the dough to the bowl and continue with the recipe. Best of luck to you!

Fold the stretched dough like a business letter
Nikon D50 – photo taken by Trisha Moore

Many thanks to my Mom for taking these photos while I handled the dough. This tutorial wouldn’t have been possible without her help.

For more fantastic information on baking artisan breads, buy the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Forum DVD.

Aug 162007

Note: As I learned more about bread, this particular recipe fell out of favor with me. The gummy crumb and puzzling lack of flavor despite the 18-hour rise simply wouldn’t do when compared with other rustic (albeit more-challenging) breads like ciabatta. If you’re new to bread baking, by all means, please try this out, but don’t think that this is the end-all be-all of bread baking.

This bread is one of those jewels in my culinary collection: impossibly simple to prepare yet impossibly delicious, it’s a great recipe to pull out when you want to serve homemade bread so fresh it’s still crackling from the oven and impress your guests with your bread-baking prowess. One of the reasons this bread is perfect in this role is because when you’re attempting to impress guests with the previously mentioned baking prowess, you’re likely trying to impress them with other aspects of your general kitchen prowess and don’t really have time to mix and knead and ferment and deflate and knead and rise and deflate and shape and proof and bake your bread. Count those steps! Just count them! While perfectly reasonable for your weekly or bi-weekly sandwich needs, it’s a bit excessive when you’re simultaneously trying to prepare a four-course authentic Italian meal for seven guests.

The golden-brown still-crackling top of the loaf
Nikon D50

In steps the Magic Bread: the bread that has much more flavor than its four-ingredient recipe would imply and that gets those amazing “look at me and how much I rise” holes in the crumb without you ever so much as flouring a countertop or stuffing in two tablespoons of yeast. As an added bonus, the fermentation time is flexible. I often let the dough sit for longer than the recommended time, which is something you can get away with even better if you put it in a cooler place.

This chunk of bread is perfect for dipping in a bowl of soup or sopping up the remains of said bowl of soup!
Nikon D50

So, in short, this is a bread to impress. I recently served it at a dinner for friends, and one of my friends was amazed at the artisanal crust. “How did you get your crust like this?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said, “I put it in a Dutch oven.”

And let’s just say that when your friends haven’t ever heard of the cookware made famous by Le Creuset but they do associate the Dutch oven with the famous method to terrorize your spouse in bed via olafactory means, that is the most impressive answer of all.

Love the loaf
Nikon D50

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