We’ve had some cool, cloudy days lately. It was time to make some bread. I don’t bake bread in the summer. Firing up the oven to 550 degrees when it’s already hot outside is just not inviting. I usually save bread days for dreary rainy days – not difficult in Seattle. I wait for the first chill of autumn and it arrived a few weeks ago. There was a sudden change. Summer felt over, the leaves were tinting red and gold on their edges and it was chilly. Yep – it was time for bread.
So I made some ciabatta, my go-to hearth bread in a home oven. Baking hearth bread in a home oven is not challenging. However, baking good hearth bread in a home oven can take some tricks and a little skill. The mixing is fairly simple and straightforward. Letting it rise or proof is not too difficult after you’ve tried it a few times. But baking hearth bread such as ciabatta in a home oven has a learning curve. Luckily, I’ve reached the top of the curve, having worked out all of the kinks for my oven. First, it takes, a hot, hot, hot oven – as hot as you can get it. (I’ve learned it’s always wise to have extra ventilation if you have a sensitive smoke alarm.) I use a pizza stone as my baking surface and a cast iron pan serves as the receptacle for the water that creates steam. A quick slide of proofed ciabatta loaves onto the stone and a cup of cold water in the heated cast iron pan creates perfect ciabatta, a good hearth bread in your oven.
Whoever said “timing is everything” had to be talking about bread. It takes a lot of time, although there is a lot of down time too. I reserve “bread days” for when I need to do things around the house or make quick errands. It’s important to keep your eye on the dough and the clock. I started the ciabatta late the night before with a poolish, a starter that sits fermenting for 14-16 hours. A poolish is a made with equal parts water and flour and just a pinch of yeast. The poolish sits covered until tiny bubbles are evident all over the surface of the poolish. Then it’s ready for the final mix.
If you haven’t made hearth breads much, ciabatta is a good place to start. The mix is fairly simple as you do not need to attain full gluten development during the mix. (Gluten development is that very strong elasticity you feel in well-mixed or kneaded dough.) This can save on the hands if you’re kneading or a Kitchenaid mixer which sometimes can get overworked. Instead of a full mix, ciabatta gets folded twice during the proofing process. The second aspect of ciabatta that makes it simpler is that it requires little to no shaping. When the dough has proofed in bulk for the second time, it is divided into the desired pieces (usually irregular rectangles), each piece is given a little stretch, and it’s left to proof on well-floured pans until it’s ready to bake.
I’ve found that bread days are also a good time for cooking in general. I usually try to make a big dish that will provide leftovers for the rest of the week. This particular day I perused the fridge while my bread was doing the first proof or rise. I had a whole chicken, three halves of three different kinds of peppers, an onion, some tomatoes that were starting to wrinkle and some homemade chicken stock in the freezer. Hmmm . . . arroz con pollo? Yes! By the time I got the chicken browning, my first loaves of ciabatta were in the oven. What aromas! Browning chicken combined with toasted flour and steam from the baking ciabatta. I was in heaven. My favorite kind of day.
Bread baking sources: Check out my favorite bread book simply called Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. There are many good books on bread, but this one surpasses them by diligently describing the process along with the art and science of bread. Jeffrey has written it for both the home cook and the professional baker and I use it often.
Upcoming Events: Join me for my return to the Meadowbrook Farmers Market this Sunday, September 19, 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm for a demonstration on making and baking ciabatta and baking in a cob oven. I’ll also be demonstrating a French Tomato Tart with a Buckwheat Crust.
On October 16, I’ll be the guest chef at Diane’s Market Kitchen for a special hands-on class: Simple Autumn Desserts. In Diane’s beautiful kitchen, we will be making Red Wine Poached Pears Dipped in Chocolate, Almond Cake with Warm Citrus and Sweet Potato Rice Pudding. There are still a few spots available.