Ciabatta

I’ve always loved ciabatta as the perfect grilled sandwich bread: chewy and toothsome on the outside, tender and pleasantly spongy on the inside. The ideal base onto which one can melt all manner of things that are tasty when melted. This being my first attempt at home baked ciabatta, I followed the recipe laid out in one of my favorites bread books: Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno (a killer combo of French and Italian baking sensibilities).

The recipe begins with an overnight starter that I allowed to sit out at room temperature (which was probably hovering in the low 60’s) for 24 hours. Since it wasn’t too warm in my kitchen, I figured the little yeasties could handle a slightly longer fermentation period without becoming too exhausted.

Starter:

1/2 tsp. dry yeast

2/3 cup water

3 TB milk

1/4 tsp. honey

1 cup + 2 TB flour

(Side note: after looking at other ciabatta recipes, I realize that this starter formula is relatively unique in that the dairy is included at such an early stage, rather than in the final mixing. The addition of a sweetener–albeit a small amount–also seems to be non-universal in ciabattaworld. I personally like this starter combo, as I think it allows for a deeper flavor to develop, and provides a little more of a feast for the yeast.)

The next day, I followed the rest of the recipe, and added to my starter:

1/2 tsp. dry yeast

1 cup water

1/2 TB olive oil

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 tsp. salt

Per the authors’ instructions, I beat the dough with a wooden spoon for 5 or so minutes, and then let it rise for 3 hours. It was strange not to hand-knead a bread dough, but ciabatta is simply too sticky a dough for hand involvement. In a vain attempt to provide my yeast friends with an ideal work environment, I gave my oven a burst of heat, shut it off, waited for it to cool a bit, and then set the bowl of dough inside to rise. Unfortunately it remained a bit toastier than I thought it would, giving the yeast a chance to party a little too quickly. Once I caught my mistake, I brought the temperature down to a happy 75 degrees, and the little fellows slowed down a bit. After ¬†three hours I had a bubbling bowl full of beauty:

Covering everything, myself included, with a liberal coating of flour, I split the dough in two, and transferred each half in all its sticky glory to a well-dusted baking sheet. The dough felt heavenly. It was soft and supple and just barely firm enough to be manageable. I gently shaped (or encouraged, rather) each blob into what could nearly be considered a loaf-ish form, careful not to expel any of the lovely air bubbles that are so prized in ciabatta. I let these loaves proof for almost half an hour while pre-heating my oven (and beloved bread stone) to 425 degrees.

In a delicate operation, I somehow managed to transfer my loaves into my miniature oven (seriously, it’s tiny) without ensuing disaster. They baked for close to half an hour, with some periodic burn-preventing rotation. When they emerged, I had to laugh a little. According to my lovely bread book, “ciabatta was given its name because the bread resembles a well-worn slipper.” If these slippers were made for Andre the Giant, then this statement would be absolutely true. The loaves were a lovely crackling brown and had expanded beautifully, but had that sort of flattened look that is so typical of comfort footwear after years of experiencing the full brunt of one’s body weight. Nevertheless, I was pleased.

Cutting into and munching on the fresh loaves made me forget about slippers, and focus on the pleasing contrast of crust and crumb-the latter so very tender and soft from the added dairy. Revealing the cross section of a newly baked loaf is always one of my favorite moments, like finding the prize in the king’s cake (although less of a dental risk). You never know what it will reveal about the bread’s inner character and it is almost (almost) as exciting as eating the first slice.

These particular loaves revealed just what I was hoping to see: a beautiful network of air pockets, perfect for mopping up the sauce of dinner to come.

All in all, quite delicious. I think next time I will add a touch more salt, and will use a different blend of white and wheat (a little heavier on the whole wheat). Thank you to Eric and Ursula for writing such an accessible recipe!