Nothing beats the smell of home-baked bread, except maybe the sense of accomplishment that comes along with it. That these fragrant, plump, and crusty loaves would have been the result of the somewhat ornery recipe published in last week's L.A. Times, was not what I expected. I was looking forward to baking bread, but when I realized I'd need to use four different kinds of flour and two different kinds of yeast, I started to balk. After all, my other baking books had recipes for ciabatta that required only one kind of flour - all purpose, unbleached. But, I told myself, I am a recipe-testing blogger! No shortcuts here. This was, after all, a challenge. So I trudged over to Whole Foods on Saturday morning, bought rye flour and bread flour and whole wheat flour, and instant yeast and active dry yeast, and then brought them all home. Let the baking begin, I muttered to myself.
To make ciabatta, you begin with a biga, which is a yeast-based starter. Unlike sourdough starter, which you can make and replenish indefinitely, a biga is made fresh for each batch of bread. Maggie has you combine bread flour, all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour with some yeasted warm water and some fresh tap water (confusingly, she instructs you to use ice water in the summer and warm water in the winter: well, what do you do in the fall or spring? I improvised - using lukewarm water) to make a very stiff dough.
You're to leave this lumpy little ball, covered tightly, in a corner for 24 hours (again, cool in summer, warm in winter: I just left it in my kitchen. What a rebel!). The first ten hours nothing is supposed to happen. I went about my Saturday (taking my friends on a culinary stroll through Chelsea and the West Village, sitting out on the Christopher Street pier, having an amazing dinner at an unassuming Turkish restaurant on 34th Street, of all places) and came home 12 hours later to find that my biga had not budged one bit. More muttering ensued. I thought I'd have nothing but a bitter, angry post, replete with pictures of a stubborn mass of flour and yeast to show for my efforts. However, the next morning, as promised, the biga had grown! And it smelled yeasty and wonderful.
I did a little victory jig, then got back to business. Bread-baking is a serious matter. Because I only have one mixing bowl, I took the biga out carefully, filled the bowl with more flour and instant yeast and salt (a lot of salt!). Then I stirred in water and the biga. Using my hand-held mixer, I beat the mixture into a pliant, liquid mass for five minutes.
This was then tightly covered and let to rise for 20 minutes. I floured the top, floured the work space, poured out the very liquid dough, patted it about ineffectually, then scraped it back into the bowl for another 20 minutes.
This idiotic (and sticky) dance ensued three more times. Maggie's instructions read that the dough would be very soft but foldable. My dough didn't really comply until the end. But never mind, the dough was rising and bubbling happily, and that was enough for me. Isn't it funny how a goofy little yeast can become so dear?
At the end of the fourth rise (and subsequent patting and "folding"), I was to let the dough rise, undisturbed for two hours. When I came back, the bowl was filled with puffy, yeasty dough. I divided the dough into two halves, patted them out into approximated business-letter shapes, folded them in thirds and lay them down on a floured linen towel. I covered the loaves with more floured towels, then let them rise for 45 minutes while the oven preheated (in the meantime, the end of The Shining was on television and I kept on being summoned back to see Shelley Duvall run around, shrieking, with that butcher's knife dangling from her limp hands). I was supposed to be preparing a baking stone and a peel, but I don't have these things. Instead, I Iined a baking sheet with parchment, and asked Ben to help me flip the risen loaves
onto the sheet. I was supposed to dimple the loaves, but I forgot. Didn't matter in the slightest! I slid the sheet into the oven, and soon enough the loaves had puffed up in the oven. Forty-five minutes later, the loaves were golden brown and crusty. Maggie instructs that you bake them until they're very dark brown all around, but I liked them at the golden brown stage, so that's when I took them out. In Italy, ciabatta usually is a light-ish bread, while pane pugliese is the darker kind, so I took my liberty with the timing. I cooled the loaves on a rack, then sliced the heel off of one. Delicious! The crust was toasty and crunchy, while the bread was yeasty and pliant. Although it's a bit of a pain to make, I can't recommend it enough. I realize I took a few liberties with the baking in the end, but none of that ended up mattering. So, go! Buy your bags of flour! Bake bread! Feel accomplished! Your friends will love you.