Guest Post: Homemade Ciabatta
Good news: my girlfriend, Paula, finally had time to write her second guest post about baking bread. This post about homemade ciabatta– and some major (and exciting!) life decisions– follows her first guest post about homemade French baguettes. I’ll turn things over to Paula:
There’s just something about baking. It’s a practical form of chemistry. I even could go so far as to call it a practical magic. You take basic ingredients, combine them with care, and the end products make those around you happy.
The products are temporary works of art that you can appreciate with all of your senses. When I watch someone enjoy what I’ve created, it fills me with a sense of accomplishment and joy that not many other things can compare to.
In my first guest post about baguettes, I mentioned that sometimes I fantasize about quitting everything and becoming a baker. After what felt like an age of agonizing about it, I’ve decided to change my major and pursue baking. I’ve already met with the head chef of culinary arts at my school and applied for the program.
This was a hard decision to make, and a scary one. But I’ve made hard decisions in the past and in my experience all of the hardest decisions have been the most fruitful, like when I quit my job and moved to Santa Barbara to start a new life when I was 31.
Every time I bake, I think that I would be happy if I could do it all day long instead of sitting at a desk. Call it cubicle fever if you will, but I know I won’t mind getting up before the sun rises if it means that I can bake all day. Kneading doesn’t even faze me anymore; actually I look forward to it.
Cooking isn’t the same. I cook for Allison a fair amount; I make her chicken and avocado tacos (the simplest meal to make, and something I never tire of– I could eat that every night), or enchiladas, or chicken mole. But nothing compares to baking. Whether it be cupcakes (like my rainbow cupcakes), bread, or cookies, the simple acts of combining, kneading, shaping, gifting, and seeing people enjoy the products put together by my hands makes me overjoyed. I absolutely love it. I have dreamed about doing this for a living for long enough: I’m getting the ball rolling now.
So, about ciabatta: this is maybe the fifth time I’ve made it. The first time was for Allison’s birthday. I was feeling very ambitious that day and decided I would make ciabatta for the first time WHILE baking baguettes. As you can tell from the photo in the baguettes blog post, they were left to rise a little too long. But the loaves of ciabatta were perfect.
Ciabatta with Homemade Butter!
I used Peter Reinhart’s recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. He writes that you can use either water or milk, and I used milk. (On the night of her birthday, Allison luckily noticed and stopped one of our vegan friends right before she bit down on a slice of ciabatta. Thankfully the baguettes were vegan.) I’ve read that the milk gives the ciabatta a chewier texture, but I’ve made it with water since then and found that there was no real difference in texture quality.
There is no sugar in this recipe; like Reinhart’s recipe for baguettes, the pre-ferment allows the natural sugars in the bread to be released. The poolish, or pre-ferment, can be made up to three days ahead.
Slightly adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart.
Poolish (Day 1)
~ 2½ cups bread flour
~ 1½ cups water, room temperature
~ ¼ tsp. instant yeast
Stir all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl until the flour is saturated. It should be the consistency of thick pancake batter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it ferment at room temperature for 3-4 hours. When the poolish is bubbly, place the bowl in the fridge overnight or for up to three days. This should make about 3¼ cups poolish.
Ciabatta (Day 2)
~ poolish (from Day 1)
~ 3 cups bread flour
~ 1½ tsp. salt
~ 1½ tsp. instant yeast
~ ¾ – 1 cup lukewarm liquid (either water, milk, buttermilk, or a combination of all)
~ olive oil spray
~ 1 – 1½ cups flour for dusting
~ semolina flour or fine ground cornmeal for the pizza stone (or for a parchment-lined baking sheet)
Special equipment needed:
~ a pizza/baking stone (or a parchment paper-lined baking sheet)
~ a linen couche (or a clean tablecloth or cloth bag that you no longer use)
~ metal cake, pie, casserole, or bread pan to fill with water and place in the oven to create steam
~ clean spray bottle filled with cold water
~ dough scraper
How to make it:
1. Remove the poolish from the fridge and leave out for one hour to take off the chill.
2. To make the dough, stir together the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Add the poolish and water/milk and mix until the ingredients form a sticky ball. Rotate the bowl clockwise with one hand while working the dough into a smooth mass with your other hand. Then rotate the bowl counterclockwise a few times to develop the gluten. Repeat– alternately turning the bowl in each direction– for 5-7 minutes until the dough is smooth, soft, and sticky. The dough should come cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.
3. Sprinkle enough flour on the counter to make a bed about 8 inches square. Transfer the dough to the bed of flour and start to gently stretch and fold. You want to be gentle enough not to tear the dough, but fold it as if you were making an envelop, folding four points of it inward to a rectangular shape. Keep a liberal amount of flour handy to dust the top of the dough, and gently pat it down into a rectangle. Wait a couple of minutes to let the dough relax, then fold the dough a second time: lift each end of the dough to stretch it out and fold it over itself to return it to a rectangular shape. Spray the dough with oil, sprinkle flour on top, and loosely cover with plastic wrap. Let ferment at room temperature for 1½ – 2 hours. It will swell, but it does not need to double in size.
4. You can now cut the dough into smaller pieces, depending on how big or small you like your ciabatta. I always cut depending on how many people I want to make a gift of fresh bread to, and usually make about three or four medium-sized loaves with this recipe. Divide the dough with a dough scraper, taking care not to de-gas the dough. Sprinkle generously with flour. Set up a couche. A couche is a linen proofing bed for the dough. I have this Bakers Couche in my wishlist, but Peter Reinhart says you can use an old, but clean, tablecloth that you no longer use; for now, I’ve been using an old cloth Trader Joe’s bag that I’ve cut apart. Generously sprinkle flour onto the fabric. Gently transfer the dough pieces one at a time to the couche. Bunch up the cloth to form walls between the pieces of dough. Mist the top of the dough with spray oil and dust with more flour. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and proof for another 60 minutes.
5. Place an empty steam pan on the oven rack below the pizza stone. Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees.
6. Dust a wooden peel or the back of a sheet pan with semolina flour or corn meal and ever so gently transfer the dough pieces to the peel/pan using the dough scraper. I usually bake two pieces at the same time. Place directly on the baking stone. Pour 1 cup hot water into the steam pan and close the door. Wait 30 seconds and spray the side walls of the oven with water. Spray again twice more at 30 second intervals. After the last spray, lower the oven temperature to 450 degrees and continue baking for 10 minutes. Then rotate the baking stone or sheet pan for even baking and continue baking for 7-10 minutes. The bread should be golden brown and the flour streaks will give it a dusty look.
7. Transfer the bread to a cooling rack. The bread will feel rock hard right out of the oven, but will soften up nicely once it’s cooled.
These ciabatta loaves keep for about a week. They are best on the first few days; but wrapped in aluminum-foil once cooled, they will keep their fresh-baked bread scent, and even on the third day, the soft and chewy texture is irresistible.