Friday, October 22, 2010

Not Yo' Mama's Italian Bread

Time was, that going to an Italian bakery meant something special. By that I mean, some kinds of bread are closely associated in our minds with their ethnic origins. For example, if asked to think of French bread, you will almost immediately think of the crusty baguettes, long and thin, with the chewy crust and soft interior. Perfect for butter and a nice sharp cheese. Unfortunately, for most people, Italian bread has come to mean something similar only softer. In truth, there are many types of Italian bread, from the rustic Pane Tuscana, which is very crusty and chewy (also no salt so eaten with salty foods usually), to the crusty dinner rolls found at almost all Italian restaurants. Modern bakeries, in their quest to speed things up (for increased volume and profits) have sacrificed flavor and texture. When we deliberately slow things down, in other words, work with dough that is fermented for a long time, we can coax out the flavors in the wheat that we otherwise sacrifice. If you are willing to start the bread today but only eat it tomorrow, then the whole world of complex flavor and texture opens up to you.

I have written in the past about using various starters. One I have used before is called pate fermente. This is French in origin and is essentially the formula for baguette dough, only put in the refrigerator overnight to ferment slowly. This bread, called simply Italian bread, harks back to the days before factory bakeries, when even commercial breads were shaped by hand and proofed slowly. It uses a starter called a biga, which is Italian in origin and similar to the pate fermente. On the second day, the starter is allowed to come to room temperature, then mixed with the other ingredients to make a chewy bread with a soft crumb, perfect for sandwiches (or sopping up the gravy of a great bolognese sauce. It is an adaptation from a recipe inThe Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. An exceptional book BTW and one everyone should have on his/her bookshelf.

Here's What You'll Need:
for the biga
2 1/2 cups (320g) flour
1/2 teaspoon yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons to 1 cup  (200 to 230g) water at room temperature
1. Stir together the flour and the yeast, then slowly add the water to form a shaggy dough. Remove it to a lightly floured tabletop and knead for a few minutes until smooth. Then place in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat, then cover and let it ferment for 2 to 4 hours. It will rise until doubled but, as you can see it takes a while.
2. Remove it from the bowl, then remove the gas gently. Place it back it the bowl, cover and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day...

Here's What You'll Need for the Dough:
all the biga from yesterday
2 1/2 cups (350g) flour
1 2/3 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon yeast
1 Tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup to 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons (200 to 230g) water (or milk)

Here's What You'll Need to Do:
1. Remove the biga from the refrigerator about an hour before using so it comes to room temperature. Cut it into about 10 pieces and cover with a towel while it warms up.
2. Mix together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast.Then add the biga pieces, the olive oil and the water.
Using a mixer, mix it all together until it forms a smooth ball that 'cleans the bowl' of the mixer.
3. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured tabletop for about 10 minutes until it is smooth and tacky (but not sticky). Then, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat and cover. Let it ferment at room temperature for at least 2 hours.
4. If you are making loaves, gently divide the dough into 2 equal pieces, form them into loaves while being careful not to de-gas the dough any more than necessary. Place the dough in prepared loaf pans.
5. If making rolls, divide the dough into 9 equal pieces, about 50g each (about 2 oz.). Gently shape them to be tapered at the end, like Italian 'torpedo rolls'.

6. Either way, cover and let them rise for another hour until they are about 1 1/2 time their original size.
7. Heat the oven to 475 F (240 C). Place an empty loaf pan on the bottom. If using a baking stone, place the pan under the stone. When the oven is heated, and the bread has risen, pour about a cup of boiling water into the pan and quickly close the door. After a few seconds spray the walls of the oven with water and close the door. Do this again after another 20 seconds or so.
8. Lower the temperature to 425 F (220 C), slash the bread, then place the bread in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes for loaves or 15 minutes for rolls.

9. Cool on a rack.
These rolls make great sandwiches. Yum!!


  1. Just gorgeous! Your fine post gives me the confidence to try...

  2. Thanks. I'm glad you like it. It's not as difficult as you might think but just pay attention to the details. And bread, like much in life, requires patience.
    Have a great day.