Friday, January 14, 2011


Yeast breads scare me, what with their finicky temperature sensitivities and climate water/flour ratio adaptations.  They also take forever to finish, require tons of gluteny counter cleanup, and lots of muscle for kneading, so I generally don't think these breads are worth the time and effort considering you can get a delicious, day-old, pre-sliced loaf for less than $2. 

But having said all that, some recent kitchen gadget acquisitions have inspired me to experiment more.  If you've got a lazy weekend ahead of you, this recipe for ciabatta from the New York Times Baker's Apprentice blog is really not labor intensive in the slightest, though it does require lots of rising time and makes the counter into a doughy mess.  The awesome smell coming out of your oven should make the cleanup process just a bit more pleasant.

The recipe recommends using a heated pizza stone to bake these, but lacking this I improvised using parchment paper and the back of a cookie sheet.  Next time I will either use a jelly roll pan, or stagger the baking since my attempt to fit three loaves on the back of a regular sized pan led to some sad looking ends where the dough drooped off the sides.  Or bite the bullet and buy a pizza stone since the loaf bottoms were really not as dark and delicious as the tops.

I also reduced the salt and the amount of cornmeal base mixture (I was scraping it off the bottom of the finished loaves), and simplified the directions a bit.  The loaf that didn't fit on the first go in the oven seemed to have the best rise and overall flavor, so I would steer towards the high end of the time estimates.  For my next trick, I want to try subbing in whole wheat flour and some seeds for texture, though I almost don't want to tempt fate since the bread turned out so fantastic this time around.

Adapted from The Baker's Apprentice

Makes 4 small loaves (3-4 x 8 inches)
Total time: 4-5 1/2 hours (Active time less than an hour)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 3/4 oz hot to the touch water (3.5 tablespoons at 100-115F, or about as hot as the tap will go but short of burning your finger)
  • 16 oz unbleached bread flour (about 3 1/4 cups)
  • 13 oz room temperature water (1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons iodized salt
  • olive oil (for coating the bowl)
  • cornmeal (for sprinkling on your base before baking)
Sprinkle the yeast on top of the 1 3/4 ounces of hot water in a small bowl to let it dissolve, and set aside.

Add the salt to the bread flour in a large bowl and stir to incorporate. Make a well in the center of the flour/salt mixture, and add the cool water little by little.

Give the yeast mixture a stir to ensure it has dissolved in the warm water, then add it to the large bowl.  Stir everything until just mixed, then stop and let it sit for 30 minutes covered in plastic wrap (you can save this for repeated use).

After 30 minutes, sprinkle flour on your work surface, then scrape the dough out onto it.  Flour your hands and form the dough into a rectangle.  Fold one of the short edges to just beyond the center, then fold the other side over the center to make another rectangle.  Fold the other two sides of the dough over the center the same way, then turn it over and dust off the flour. Place the folded dough in a a bowl slicked with olive oil (about a tablespoon) and let it sit for 30 minutes, again, covered with plastic wrap.

After 30 minutes, turn out your dough on a floured work surface and fold again, using the same method as above.  Place the dough back in the oiled bowl (make sure it doesn't have any dough residue from the last time), covered with plastic, and let it rise until it has doubled in volume, 1 to 2 hours.

After the dough has doubled in volume, sprinkle a little more flour onto your workspace.  Scrape the dough out onto the counter, flour your hands, and gently flatten the dough into a large, even rectangle.  Use a bench scraper or a knife to cut the dough into 4 equal pieces.  Fold the sides of each piece over the center in the same manner as above.  Place each folded piece seam-side down on the floured counter. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let it rise for 30 to 60 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in volume.

Preheat your oven to 475F and put a baking stone on the middle rack (if using) and an empty pan for water on the bottom rack.  Take one ciabatta piece at a time and stretch it very gently to lengthen.  Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of a mixture of half cornmeal and half flour on a piece of parchment paper.  Turn each stretched ciabatta piece upside-down and place on the cornmeal covered paper (you may have to bake in two batches if the loaves won't fit on one surface).  Reform the loaves very gently if they get warped in the transfer.

Transfer the parchment paper to the preheated stone or the back of a baking sheet and place on the middle rack of the oven.  Pour water into the pan on the bottom rack in order to make steam and close the oven door.

Bake until loaves are a very dark brown, approximately 20-30 minutes. Let the bread cool completely before cutting into it.


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