The challenge bread two weeks ago was ciabatta, and I was thrilled! After weeks of various enriched breads, I was longing for a basic, real loaf I could slice and butter or eat with cheese.
We had a choice of five variations of this bread (two different starter methods: poolish or biga; and three additional variations: with wild mushrooms, with cheese, or with caramelized onion and herbs).
I chose to use the biga version, and to make it plain. And it turned out pretty much the way I wanted.
The goal for this bread is nice, big holes. After reading what others in the group had tried (lucky for me, many fellow BBA Challengers are weeks ahead of the rest of us, so we can learn from their inspirations and mistakes), I decided to go with the biga starter because it seemed that variation more consistently provided the big holes.
The biga itself is a simple little dough made of flour, yeast, and water, which mixes into a fairly wet dough.
It smooths out beautifully after just a few minutes of kneading.
After letting it rise at room temperature for a couple of hours, the biga was big and puffy.
And then it went into the refrigerator for an overnight retard. This slow, cold fermentation (also the secret to l’ancienne) is what gives the finished bread its deep, nutty, rich flavor because the chill of the refrigerator slows down the fermentation, giving the flavors time to develop.
The next morning, the biga was big and bubbly.
I degassed the biga, measured out 16 ounces for the recipe, and then cut the measured amount into 10 equal pieces.
I had already measured out the dry ingredients (flour, salt, yeast) for the rest of the recipe, and added to that the wet ingredients (water and optional olive oil), and then the biga pieces.
Even though the biga itself looked like a rather dry dough, the addition of the water and olive oil produced a very wet dough.
So wet, it fairly puddled onto the counter when I turned it out of the mixing bowl (you bet I did all the “kneading” for this one in the electric mixer!).
One of the tricks to handling this dough is to keep it, the counter, and your hands well floured at all times. So I floured everything well and proceeded with folding the dough as directed, by first stretching it out to three times its width, and then folding the ends back into the middle, letter-style.
I know. It hardly looks like it will be bread.
But thirty minutes later, when I folded it again, it had firmed up a bit and held its shape more readily.
After two hours’ rising, it still looked like a blob, but a blob with some structure.
The folded dough had risen gorgeously, but this was the scary part, because now I had to cut and move and shape it without destroying too much of the loft.
I wet my bencher (dough scraper) and slit the mound into two pieces.
And then I think I got a bit confused about which side to fold over which when I put it in the couche (the French pastry cloth that holds wet doughs while they do their final rise) and I’m positive I got it wrong because my ciabatta loaves now looked like square loves rather than the long, characteristic slipper shape, but once I’d got the loaves settled, I wasn’t about to touch them again and lose any loft.
I let them rest there for an hour and then had to transfer them to the peel and this is where my mistake with the final shaping really hurt the end result. The recipe said to gently stretch the loaves a bit as I transferred them to the peel, but because the shape was wrong, it wasn’t clear which way to stretch them. That is, since they were sort of square, there was no “long way”, no natural direction in which to stretch them. I did my best, but they looked pretty awful on the peel.
At this point, I felt a bit like panicking, and a bit like just starting over, but I had already invested nearly a day on these loaves and I had some faith in what the oven could do, so I moved ahead.
The process for baking these loaves (“hearth baking”) is the same as for l’ancienne: put an empty pan at the bottom of the oven and let it heat up along with the oven, put the loaves in (on a baking stone), add hot water to the hot pan and then close the door. The oven fills with steam. At 30 second intervals, open the oven door, spray water onto the sides of the oven (note sides, not oven door or glass-covered oven lights), and then turn the oven temperature down slightly and let the loaves bake. This process is the key to obtaining shiny, crunchy crusts in a home kitchen and it works like a charm.
I’ve devoted this poor — now warped and discolored — sheet pan to the task.
20 minutes later, the loaves came out not exactly looking like a traditional ciabattas, but looking pretty darn edible.
And the house smelled — oh! It smelled like real bread.
I cut it open about an hour later. I was partly successful. Parts of the loaves had the nice big holes, but it wasn’t consistent, and, in one loaf in particular, I had a flour “vein” where one of the ends of the loaf had been too floured when I did one of the folds. Overall, though, I was very happy with this bread and loved the deep, nutty taste. It was dangerously delicious when paired with goat’s milk butter.