Ciabatta Despite its ubiquity, ciabatta is in fact one of the more recently invented Italian breads. It originates from the Lake Como region and the name means “slipper” as that is what the loaf is supposed to resemble. This recipe is adapted from Carol Field’s book “The Italian Baker” (see the Further Reading section to buy the book). You will be using a generous proportion of preferment, called “biga” (say “BEEga”) in Italian. The dough is quite wet – giving the bread an open, holey texture – so I recommend kneading with a stand mixer. If you can use semolina flour or pasta flour when shaping the loaves, some of the flour will not dissolve in the moisture from the dough, and gives an attractive rustic look to the finished bread. I use a mixture of bread flour and plain/all purpose flour for this recipe – there is a compromise between the high gluten content from bread flour making the dough easier to handle and the lower gluten from the plain flour making the finished loaf more tender and melt-in-the-mouth rather than chewy. As usual, you can experiment to find a combination that suits you.
Ingredients – Biga
Scant 1/4 tsp dry (easyblend) yeast 220 ml water at room temperature 285 g Italian type 00 flour or plain/all purpose flour (not strong bread flour) Mix all the ingredients in a bowl with a wooden spoon for 3-4 minutes or in the mixer using the paddle at lowest speed for 2 minutes. You are not aiming to develop strong gluten at this point. Leave in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, or up to 72 for maximum flavour.
Ingredients – Final Dough
1 tsp easyblend yeast 5 tbsp/75 ml warm milk 280 ml water at room temperature 1 tbsp olive oil 500 g Italian type 00 flour or strong bread flour, or a mixture of plain/all purpose flour and strong bread flour. 1 tbsp/15 g salt Optional: semolina/pasta/Italian type 0 flour for dusting
Mix the biga and remaining ingredients using the mixer paddle until all the flour is wet. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 2 minutes at low speed then 2 minutes at medium speed. The dough should be smooth and springy. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise at room temperature until doubled, about 1 ¼ hours. Thoroughly dust your work surface with semolina/pasta flour, tip the dough onto the flour and cut into four pieces. Flour your hands and roll each piece into a cylinder. It is difficult to avoid the dough sticking to your fingers, but it will help if you handle the dough very gently, as though it were red hot and you wanted to avoid burning your fingers. Stretch each piece into a rectangle about 25 x 10 cm. If the dough shrinks back too much, leave it to rest for five minutes.
Cut four pieces of baking parchment, allowing plenty of room for the dough to spread during proving. Put each loaf on the parchment, seam side down and cover with lightly oiled cling film. Leave to prove until noticeably puffy, about 1¼ – 1½ hours.
30 minutes before baking, heat the oven with the baking stone on the top shelf to its hottest setting. Put a wide heatproof tray or dish on the lower shelf. When the loaves have finished proving, remove the cling film from two of the ciabattas and slide them onto the hot baking stone, complete with the parchment. Immediately fill the tray on the lower shelf with boiling water to make steam for a crispy crust and close the oven door as quickly as possible. Three times during the first ten minutes, open the door slightly and spray water into the oven to make extra steam. After ten minutes, turn the loaves round, reduce the temperature to 220° C, 425° F, gas mark 7, and bake for a further ten minutes. The loaves should be a deep golden-brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom when baked. Allow to cool completely on a rack before cutting. When you remove the first two ciabattas, don’t forget to put the oven back on to its highest setting for five minutes before baking the other two. Note if not using the dry milk, you can replace I cup of the water with 1 cup of milk, scalded (brought just under the boil and cooled to lukewarm.