Monday, February 21, 2011

Ciabatta amore. Finally.

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:
I loved every aspect of bread and cake baking, every ingredient, every recipe. Except one. Okay, maybe two, counting the dreaded holiday tea ring, but don't look for that recipe here. Because of its wet, sloppy, impossible-to-form dough, I did not love ciabatta. It was the only bread that had to be poured out of its rising bucket "into a rectangle" that could then be cut into 16 similarly sized loaves. Right. Who can't pour a perfect rectangle of gooey dough?

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.
As with the sponge, the secret to ciabatta's chewy texture is in the gas bubbles that form with a slow rise - allow at least 2 hours. On this day, my house was not overly warm so I left the dough for 4 hours.

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.
Again, with floured hands, lift each loaf, sliding fingers underneath the ends to gently pry up and over to the parchment-lined baking sheet. I have stones on one rack of my oven and therefore place my loaves on parchment paper on the back of the baking sheet and when risen, slide them onto the hot baking stones for an even crisper crust. If you're brave or bored, feel free to try this, but make it the easy way at first so you can learn the other aspects without stress.

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.
Later, when your loaves are nice and cooled and easily sliced, again with a sharp, serrated bread knife, use them for extra-special toast (2 slices per slot, it turns out), or bruschetta, or any kind of sandwich that supports a crusty full-bodied bread. I like mine with braised kale and Asiago cheese, under the broiler for a minute.
Oh, did I mention that ciabatta makes excellent croutons? Toss with melted butter, salt, pepper and garlic powder and broil to crispy goodness, then throw some on your next bowl of soup.
Another personal favorite and late-night guilty pleasure, inspired by Giada De Laurentiis, is Nutella between 2 slices of ciabatta and grilled in the pan with a touch of olive oil. A slightly more substantial version is brie and dark chocolate on ciabatta, either grilled or pressed into a panini. It's sweet and savory and buttery and, well, what are you waiting for?


  1. Holy gas bubbles, Batman! This looks and sounds (from here) amazing. Hmmmm. Do I have enough flour to start a sponge at least?

  2. The bread looks great! I can already smell it from here! I'm trying to find out if you still work in a bakery or own one. I'm in Northern VA and went to Virginia Tech so very familiar with Blacksburg/Roanoke area. Are you close to there?

  3. Hi Nour! I actually worked at Our Daily Bread bakery which you probably remember from your days at VT. I live nearby in Christiansburg and take my breads, macaron, etc. to Draper Valley Farmer's Market which is a little south of here. I hope you're enjoying being in NoVa - there are many great bakeries, if you don't want to attempt the ciabatta yourself - but let me know if you have any questions about baking it. As my boss used to say, "It's all good, warm out of the oven."

  4. If I'm ever in Blacksburg on a Saturday, I'll make sure I stop by the farmer's market. Loved Our Daily Bread. Good days :)

  5. I just found your blog, as well, and enjoyed your point of view about the Dukan diet. Thanks for making the point that any unbalanced diet is not a good plan! Hope to see you at the Draper Market one day. :)