I don't know if anyone has noticed, but in the bread baking world I have a few heroes. Jeffrey Hamelman, the Master Baker and Instructor from King Arthur Flour is one. His book, simply titled Bread is a classic and when first released in 2004, was instantly hailed as the bread book. It is now into its 2nd edition and this time it is even better.
Another baking hero of mine is Peter Reinhart, without doubt one of the greatest bread bakers of our time. He has written numerous cookbooks from Brother Juniper's Bread Book through Crust and Crumb and The Bread Baker's Apprentice and all the way to Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads. Every one a gem. And if you follow the recipes they will no doubt lead you to better baking. I can almost guarantee it.
This recipe is a variation on Reinhart's Ciabatta recipe, filling it with caramelized onion and fresh herbs from my garden. You can use just about any herbs but the taste family of oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme or rosemary works best in my opinion. I also varied the shape of the loaves. Instead of the smallish rolls we usually make with this dough, I shaped it into a largish loaf and later sliced it to make incredible sandwiches. Toasted with a little sharp mustard, it is incredible. Like most recipes from Reinhart, this one includes a starter - in this case a poolish, which ferments for a few hours or even overnight. Make the effort with this one, it is definitely worth it.
Here's What You'll Need:
for the starter (poolish):
2 1/2 cups/11.25 oz/320 g bread flour (or AP flour)
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups/12 oz/340 ml water
1/4 tsp instant dry yeast
Mix the flour, water and yeast together to make a very thick slurry. It will have the consistency of thick pancake batter. Cover and let it stand, at room temperature for at least 3 or 4 hours, or even overnight. If leaving overnight, after 3 hours place the bowl in the refrigerator.
The next day...
For the dough:
all of the poolish
3 cups/13.5 oz/385 g bread flour (or AP flour)
1 3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp. instant dry yeast
1/3 to 3/4 cup water at room temperature
for the filling:
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped fresh herbs
1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. brown sugar
Using olive oil, saute the onions on a low heat until very soft. Add the brown sugar and the balsamic vinegar and continue stirring until it thickens slightly. Cool completely before using.
Here's What You'll Need To Do:
* If you refrigerated the poolish, remove it at least 1 hour before using it so it comes to room temperature.
1. Mix the flour, salt and yeast together in a large bowl. Then add the poolish and 1/3 cup of water. Mix by hand until it comes together. You may need to add a bit more water up to 3/4 cups. When it forms into a rough ball of dough, remove to a lightly floured surface.
2. Knead the dough, which will be quite sticky and slack using the stretch and fold technique. Flatten the dough into a rough rectangle. Stretch the far side away from you and then on top of the remaining dough. Do the same with the dough closest to you so it is folded like a letter. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat.
3. Lightly spray the dough with oil, cover and let it rest for 30 minutes. Repeat this process 3 times, at 30 minute intervals, each time folding and stretching.
*The last time you stretch and fold the dough, shape it into a rough rectangle then spread the onion mixture over the surface. Stretch and fold the dough with the onions now incorporated into the dough.
4. Finally cut the dough into loaf size pieces (or rolls) and roll gently in flour. Try not to deflate the dough. Place the shaped dough (either rolls or loaves) on a lined baking sheet, cover and let it rest and rise. The dough will puff up but probably not double.
5. Preheat the oven to 450 F/220 C. Bake the bread, with steam*, for about 20 minutes (rolls) or 30-35 minutes for loaves.
6. Cool completely on a rack before slicing. If you can.
*Place a small tray in the oven while you preheat. Just before placing the dough in the oven, pour about 1 cup boiling water into the tray and close the door quickly. This will create a steamy atmosphere and help make the crust crunchy and chewy (and delicious, of course).