Ciabatta, which means slipper in Italian, has a hotly-disputed history.  It is generally marketed as a traditional bread, the sort of bread one might have consumed along with a tankard of mead in an alehouse in the Middle Ages.  However, a miller called Arnaldo Cavallari claims to have invented it in 1982 to save Italy from skyrocketing baguette imports from France.  If he did, it was a stroke of genius.  Ciabatta has become the bread of choice in trendy cafés, restaurants, and sandwich shops the world over.  With a high water content (80%), it's an inexpensive bread to produce, and yet it is often double the price of other breads.

It is delightfully ironic to be baking a bread that fended off an invasion of French baguettes to accompany our Veal Marengo recipe celebrating a French Napoleonic victory in Italy, but the main reason we've chosen to feature the ciabatta is that it's a bread that's particularly pleasing to the senses.  It isn't just tasty.  It tears beautifully in the hands, alternates between a crunchy crust and soft springy centre, and gives off the most wonderful aroma in the oven.  And then there's the texture.  The loaves are a work of art, never identical, a joy to touch.

Some say it isn't a bread for novice bakers, but we beg to differ.  As long as you are not impatient and keep the dough wet, this is an easy bread to make.

Ingredients:

700g strong (high gluten bread/pizza) flour
20g dry yeast
20g salt
pinch of castor sugar
1 tbl white vinegar (or sourdough starter)
560ml tepid water
20ml olive oil
olive oil spray (optional)
flour for dusting, preferably rye

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Begin by weighing and mixing all the dry ingredients.  It's important to weigh these as the amount can vary so much if you use a cup measure depending on how densely the flour is packed.  Add the flour mixture to 500ml of the tepid water and a splash of vinegar (c. 1 tbl) in the bowl of your stand mixer.  (If you don't have a stand mixer, be prepared for quite a workout.)  Mix on slow speed using a dough hook, adding the rest of the water as needed so that you have a very wet and sticky dough.

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Mix on a higher speed for ten to fifteen minutes until the dough sticks with a cobweb-like consistency, then add the olive oil and continue mixing for a minute or two.

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By this time, the dough should be supple and stretchy and have a high sheen.  Add a small handful of flour and continue to mix on high speed.

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The dough should come away from the bowl - add a little more flour if it doesn't.

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The dough will now be supple, shiny, smooth, and stretch easily.

Let it rise for approximately two hours in the bowl, covered with cling wrap or a plastic bag.  It should more than double, even triple in size.

Pre-heat your oven to 230 degrees Celcius or thereabouts.

After your dough has risen, give it a generous spray of olive oil and knock it back.  (This prevents it sticking to you or the dough scraper.) Then sift rye flour over the top.

Pour your dough on to a (rye) floured bench top or board, and sift more rye flour over the top.  Gently shape your dough into a rough rectangle, pushing the flour against the sides of the dough with your scraper so that the dough is encased in flour and doesn't stick.  You should be able to lift up the edges, feel the springiness, and pull the dough into shape.  Cut the dough into two large or four small loaves, once again shaping them using your dough scraper, this time into slipper shapes.
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Place your 'slippers' on a baking tray (or trays) and gently push them back into shape if necessary.

Bake for 45 minutes with a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to produce steam (though this isn't mandatory).  The loaves pictured did not use the steam 'trick' but some swear by it.

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Cool the loaves on wire racks.

Ciabatta is so delicious that it can be eaten straight.  Its flavour is best appreciated with olive oil or unsalted butter.

Whether you use your ciabatta for a fancy lunch sandwich, to soak up a rich sauce, or as an accompaniment with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, your guests will think it came from one of the finest bakeries of the region.

 


Comments

Deb anderson
04/09/2013 12:55

Beautiful..should be a magazine

05/09/2013 20:45

Made this today for the first time and am very pleased with the result. I used Defiance bread flour with a little bread improver added. I did have to add considerably more than the extra 1 or 2 handfuls of flour to get the mixture to come away from the bowl but it turned out very well on the bread bake setting in a steam oven. Highly recommended.

06/09/2013 19:48

So glad you enjoyed it, Christine. It's remarkable how much our environment (temperature, humidity, etc.) affects our cooking, so one of the hurdles in becoming a good cook is having the confidence to follow the directions of a recipe rather than strictly measuring ingredients. Sounds like you've conquered that hurdle easily! :)


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