Tuesday, July 04, 2006


pluma & ciabatta

My BCCY Podcast long-time readers know i'm always trying to encourage people to bake bread at home. it's so easy even for first-timers!

a very popular bread is ciabatta, but many people believe it's difficult. this is 1 - because of the baker's percentage and 2 - because it's a wet, that is, "high-hydration" loaf.

pish-tosh. it's the easiest bread in the world, esp. in the summer when the weather cooperates. the first thing you have to do is conquer the percentage.

if you have a calculator (or even google -- you know google does math, don't you?), just decide how much bread you want to make. which often means "how much flour is in that stupid jar, anyway?" everything flows from that.

all you have to know is that ciabatta is about 75% hydration, with a 33% or so biga. it's a lean dough, no oil or fat.

let's say you have a couple of pounds of all-purpose flour around the house. just dump it in a big bowl and weigh it on your little kitchen scale.

ok, no problem! 32 oz for ciabatta!

since you need some to sprinkle about, dust on your hands, put on the bread pan, etc. you probably shouldn't use more than 27-28 oz. for the actual bread. there we are; we're now done, and our recipe has fixed itself in stone.

27 oz. flour total will go into our dough, and everything else is based on that amount. since ciabatta is 74-75% water (compared to the flour), we know right away that we'll be using 20 oz. water (by weight) total.

the combined final weight of my dough will thus be 47 oz., plus some salt and yeast. the salt and yeast weigh so little for this amount of bread, i won't worry about 'em.

ciabatta is much better if you make a biga the night before, and i suggest you do it. biga for ciabatta usually contains about a third of the total flour, which in this case means about 9 oz.

i like to make my bigas really wet, because then they're easy to stir. no effort. big lazy me!

so i made a biga of 9 oz. flour and 8 oz. water in a large bowl. i dropped in 1/2 teaspoon s.a.f. yeast, and mixed all this up with a few sly strokes of a wooden spoon just until everything's somewhat smooth, which took about 25 counts with the spoon.

then i covered the bowl with some plastic wrap, stuck it in my oven and forgot about it. the next morning i woke up, made cappucini with batdorf's dancing goat, and peeked at the biga.

yup, it had grown to a big yeast monster. all good. i stuck it in the fridge until i felt like starting the rest of the dough.

about 45 mins. before i decided to start, i took the biga out to warm up. i already know the rest of my recipe, right?

of a total 20 oz. water, i've already used 8 in the biga. this means i have 12 oz. to use in the dough; since i like to dissolve my salt in this water, i'll stir in 2 teaspoons salt into it. (salt should weigh about 2% of the total flour weight).

and of my total 27 oz. flour, i've used 9 in the biga, leaving me 18 for the dough.

see how easy it is? my recipe is 47 oz. total, and my biga is 17 oz. total (9 oz. flour + 8 oz. water), which is just a bit over a third (36%), so my proportion remains all good.

so i plop my biga in its big bowl on my little kitchen scale and pour in my 12 oz. water (which contains the dissolved salt).

then i idly stir the biga and the water together with said wooden spoon for less than a minute. the biga will melt into the water, leaving you with something that looks like watery pancake batter.

then dump in the remaining flour and some more yeast (i like to use 1-1/2 teaspoons here). in truth yeast for ciabatta should weigh about 1% of the total flour weight, but as i knew it was hot, steamy weather, and the yeast would go bonkers, i cut back a bit.

again, i stir this indolently with my wooden spoon until i have what looks like thick soupy biscuit batter, as if for drop biscuits. if i spend 2 mins. doing this, it's too much.

then i go away and forget about it for an hour and 45 mins. at least once during that time -- say at minute 60 -- i pour this soup out onto the plastic wrap that covers the bowl. then i dampen my hands, pick up an edge of the dough, gently stretch it out a bit, and fold it into the center, like a letter.

then i take the opposite edge and do the same thing. i repeat this letter-folding for the 2 other edges, trying to keep the dough as plump as possible. no squishing flat, please.

and then plop the goop back into the bowl. if i feel ambitious, i can do this a couple of more times during the remaining 45 mins.

when that last bit of time passes, i pre-heat my oven to 500 f. i take my favorite big cookie sheet or baking pan and sprinkle it liberally with flour.

i pour my dough out on this in a big, wide ribbon. ok, maybe more like "huge tongue."

remember, ciabatta means old shoe or old slipper: it's a mis-shapen, uneven, rough-n-battered looking thing. so resist any cooking-show impulse to tidy it up.

dampen your hands again and gently pat it into a vaguely oval shape. sprinkle the top liberally with more flour.

let your ciabatta rest for 30-45 mins., until it nearly doubles in height. then oh so gingerly roll the ciabatta over, upside down. really. gently coax it over if you can.

however, you might not be able to do so; it might stick to the pan too much. pity.

but since we don't want to deflate the ciabatta at all, don't sweat it too much if you feel like you can't flop it without harming it. the bread will still look and taste great.

then just carefully slide the baking pan with its risen, quivering mass into the hot oven.

close the door carefully. no slamming.

after 15 mins., reduce the heat to 450, and rotate the pan in the oven. bake for another 10-15 mins.

the ciabatta is done if it sounds hollow on the bottom when rapped, or when an instant-read thermometer stuck into the bottom says 200 f.

i used to always conclude recipes with a warning to let the bread cool completely before slicing it. but no one ever listens.

your friends and family will tear into this hot loaf like locusts discovering a field. you can feel better about this if you cut the entire loaf open horizontally, liberally douse one side with your best olive oil, a lot of freshly ground black pepper, many slices of fresh garden tomatoes, and some salt.

sprinkle with more oil, press the remaining side back on top very firmly, and slice it into large snacky pieces.

this is called pan i ogghiu. enjoy.

that's what i did, along with a cup of the counterculture pluma.

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posted by fortune | 12:21 PM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 5 comments

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