There's something about rising at 4:00 a.m. and making your way down dimly lit streets to start baking bread before anybody else has even thought of getting up and going to work. There's also a rhythm to bakery life - the groan of rotating ovens coming to life, the metallic clank of measuring cups against mixing bowls and the slow, eventual filling of the air with the best aromas known to humankind - yeast and coffee.
There's also the occasional Frenchman who drops by to instruct you on the perfect baguette:
Now that I bake mostly for myself, my friends and family, and the occasional client, I've learned to love ciabatta. This love did not come easily. It came after months of my parents' insistence that Kroger ciabatta was their favorite bread. It made the best toast, they exclaimed. Toast? How can you make toast with a 1-1/2 inch tall slice of bread? Much less, a sandwich. Initially, their comments just fueled my dislike. Until one day, when they pushed a buttery, crunchy piece of toasted ciabatta into the hand that wasn't holding my coffee and I gave it a try. Like an English muffin, there seemed to be flavor (and by that, I mean melted butter) in all the holes, but with a decidedly Italian essence that comes from baking with olive oil. So began my search for a ciabatta recipe I could work with - not prohibitively gooey, with that great Mediterranean flavor, that baked up crunchy and airy. After much trial and error with flavor and texture, the one below, from Gourmet magazine's March 1998 issue, is dependable and immediately replaced my parents' store-bought product. Start this bread 18 to 24 hours before you want it to come out of the oven. The sponge stands 12 to 24 hours. The first rise of the dough in the bowl will take about 2 hours and the second rise of the shaped bread, maybe 1-1/2 hours. Bake time is 25 to 30 minutes.
For the sponge:
1/4 tsp. yeast
1 C. room-temperature water (add more if it's stiff - flour and weather can affect this)
2 C. bread flour (if all you have is all-purpose, use it)
I mix this part in a piece of crockery that came with a lid, from Big Lots for $3. It lets the sponge breathe without drying out and has just enough room for the rise. Let rise for 12 to 24 hours, depending on your schedule - 12 is enough but 24 won't hurt it. The yeast does not need warm water to activate - the long, slow fermentation process is what gives the bread its wonderful airy texture.
For the bread:
1 tsp. yeast
4 T. warm milk (105-115 F)
1-1/3 C. room-temperature water (see below for adjustments)
2 T. olive oil
4 C. bread flour (again, I've used all-purpose when I had to)
1 T. salt
When the sponge is ready, place it with remaining ingredients in moderately powerful stand mixer with dough hook. (Or put it on a floured surface and dig in, but do not scoff at my Kitchenaid - we'll see what your rotator cuff has to say in 10 years.) Knead for at least 7 minutes to develop the gluten, and up to 10 minutes to incorporate all ingredients into a smooth, sticky dough. As you can see, this dough does not ever cling entirely to the hook. If it does, it's too stiff. It's important that any needed additional water be added early on, before any hard balls of dry or oily dough can form. If this happens, just crank the mixer up to the third or fourth power setting and let it go. When you see ciabatta start flinging dough from the hook to the sides and don't see any lumps, it's happy again.
It will be gooier than when it went in to rise, so LIBERALLY flour your counter or cutting board surface. This is not a bread to make in a square foot of workspace. It likes to spread and it likes to stick. So again, LIBERALLY flour that surface. If you greased the bowl plenty, you'll still have to help the dough out into its approximation of a rectangle. This recipe makes 2 loaves, so once it's on the counter, use floured fingers to push the sides into shape. Sprinkle the top with flour to further form the dough. A bench scraper comes in very handy here, as well. Use it to push the sides of the dough, but most importantly, it's great to then cut the rectangle roughly in half.
This is a "hearth bread" and therefore likes a hot oven. Preheat to 425 and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, letting the crust get nice and brown and caramelized. Having no resistance, I always cut into one loaf immediately.