Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ciabatta Bread

Over the past few months, I have really been enjoying the ciabatta from Chabaso Bakery in New Haven, CT. If you like bread, and live in the New Haven area, you owe it to yourself to seek out a Chabaso ciabatta. This shouldn't be too hard as they're sold in pretty much all area Stop & Shop stores. If you don't live in New Haven, I'm sure a little research will turn up an artisanal (basically the art of hand-crafting bread) bread baker near you, and even if they don't have ciabatta, their bread is sure to be excellent. This is pretty much the only bread I ever want anymore, it's that good. It is a perfect compliment to a plate of pasta, makes wonderful cold sandwiches or panini, toasts into delicious croutons, and is great to eat plain or with a little extra virgin olive oil. Some fresh mozzarella, good ripe locally grown tomato slices, a few leaves of fresh basil, some oil, a splash of vinegar, salt and pepper on a fresh ciabatta might be the closest thing to food heaven that I've ever encountered.

But I digress...

Since I already love cooking, and have been delving into baking lately, trying my hand at a variety of cookies and pies, I figured why not try bread as well? While reading a post on one of my favorite food blogs, 101cookbooks.com, I came across the name Peter Reinhart. Peter is a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University, and a general bread enthusiast. I was pretty sure I wanted one of his award-winning cookbooks, but what put me over the top was the fact that he wrote this book:

He went everywhere eating pizza (including Pepe's!) and knows that it is the crust that makes a pie truly special. And what is crust but bread? This guy knows what it's all about. So I asked for one of his books for Christmas, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, and my mom came through for me. Thanks mom! And thanks to mom-in-law, I have a shiny new Kitchen Aid stand mixer to help me make dough!

So I spent a day reading all about pre-fermenting, the differences between different types of yeast, enzyme action, proofing dough, and various other bread-related topics. For anybody who ever wondered, there's an astounding amount of biology in the science of bread. It truly is an art to coax flavor and general deliciousness from flour, water, yeast, and salt. When it came time to try to make some bread, of course I chose ciabatta, which is a 2 day process.

First I had to make a pre-ferment, a poolish, which basically is a wet dough that is used to make the final dough on the second day. The purpose of it is to allow yeast to begin breaking down starches into alcohol and carbon dioxide (the gas that will provide the holes in the crumb of the bread). Then by putting the the poolish in the refrigerator overnight, you slow down the fermenting by the yeast (they don't like the cold) and allow enzymes to break down starches, which don't taste very good to the human tongue, into simple sugars, which happen to be delicious. If you don't refrigerate, the yeast would make quick work of these sugars and they would not be present to flavor the bread during baking.

This morning (1/1/08), I removed the poolish from the fridge, brought it to room temperature, mixed it with the rest of the ingredients to make the finished dough. Once the dough was stretched and allowed to rest, stretched again, and then allowed to rest for about 2 more hours, it looked like this:

Next step was to cut the dough into 3 pieces, do another stretch and fold to get the dough into the rough shape of the finished loaves and allow it to proof (a final rest/rise before final shaping and baking). Here is a picture of the loaves resting a a couche, which means "heavy duty layers":

After about an hour, the loaves were placed on a cornmeal-laden pizza peal and placed in a 450 degree oven on clay tiles and baked for about 15 minutes, until the middle registered 205 degrees. In order to provide steam necessary for proper crust formation, a cup of water was placed in a cast iron pan inside the oven, and the walls of the oven were periodically sprayed with water. Here's a picture of the first 2 loaves cooking:

The second I put these babies in the oven...I smelled burning. It's funny the way things turn out sometimes. I had been meaning to buy an oven thermometer for a while and when I finally got one yesterday, I decided to use it today. Well, when I preheated my oven to 500 (to account for lost heat during the opening/closing of the stove door in the first few minutes), my oven thermometer said 450. So I kicked up my oven to 550. The bread went in and fifteen minutes later, came out like this:

Nice tops, burnt bottoms. Basically, the oven was too hot, and the cornmeal on the bottom of my loaves burned very quickly. Luckily I had one more loaf to bake, so I turned down my oven to 500 and proceeded as before, minus 50 degrees, the resulting loaf turned out much better:

45 minutes later, I was ready to cut and taste. I sliced off an end of one of the burned loaves and immediately put in my mouth. Good crust chew, nice flavor, but way too dense a crumb for ciabatta. There were none of those big holes so prized in this kind of bread. Take a look:

I'll tell you what though, it tasted damn good! Not too bad for flour, water, yeast, and salt. As for the problem of my crumb, well it could've been the yeast, the temperature in my house during pre-fermenting, or perhaps I handled the dough too roughly during one of the intermediate steps forcing gas out, or something else all together. Guess I'll have to spend some time controlling my variables. All in all, I'm pretty happy with the results (aside from the burning, but the bread tastes fine once the thin burnt layer is sliced off the bottom). It actually tastes like a good loaf of Italian bread. I'm sure I'll get the finer points of ciabatta eventually.

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