Bread. It’s one of the basic foods of the world; it is one of the only foods which is present in every culture as each country has its own unique history, recipes and methods. It should be simple, unadulterated and pure, but, like many foods in the modern western world, has mass-produced and tainted by chemicals, preservatives and the need for bread to last much longer than it does naturally. Bread has now become a political issue; some people are becoming aware of the horrifying list of emulsifiers and e-numbers printed on the plastic-wrapped plastic loaves of our modern society. In reality, this pappy, vinegary substance is as far from ‘real’ bread as it is possible to be. But, a backlash is here; an emerging group of bread evangelists has emerged. Everywhere you look are chefs extolling the virtues of fresh bread and how easy it is to make at home. Artisan bakers who charge upwards of £4 a loaf boast about how old the starters are that they use for their sourdough. Britain is again producing bread to be proud of.
In Italy, as with so many things, they do things differently. You can find sliced ‘plastic’ bread in the supermarkets there, but it is a rarity in an Italian home. It is unthinkable to serve a meal in Italy without some sort of bread on the table. Like the French, Italians buy bread fresh every day; it is a subconscious action, rather than a chore. Bread is eaten at lunch and dinner and what isn’t eaten can always be made into something delicious like panzanella salad, which has to be made with stale bread.
One of the most famous Italian breads is ciabatta, which means slipper. It was introduced to the mass market in Britain by good old Marks and Spencer back in the 1980s. It is characterised by a light and open structure inside: the crumb is uneven and there are lots of irregular holes inside the floury crust. This recipe is not difficult but it does take a bit of time. You need to start this recipe at least 24 hours before you want the loaves. The reason of this is that you need to create a starter, or biga as the Italians call it, which will help to create the open holes but will also give a depth to the flavour of the bread which is really fantastic. If you are patient enough to have your own sourdough starter, please feel free to use that, but this is the easy way to replicate some of the richness of a proper sourdough starter, without having to feed it like a baby for weeks beforehand. Please try and use fresh yeast for this, it really makes a difference. Your local bakery or the bakery counter at the supermarket usually has it for a few pence. Be warned, this is quite a wet dough, but do use all the water specified, as the wetness of the the dough helps enormously with the lightness of the end loaf.
Makes 4 loaves
For the biga
350g white flour
1/2 level teaspoon fresh yeast
For the dough
450g strong white flour
10g fresh yeast
20ml olive oil
24 hours before you want to bake your ciabatta, mix all the ingredients for the biga together until you have a rough dough. Pace in an oiled bowl and cover with a plastic shower cap and leave it to rest somewhere away from drafts for about 24 hours. If you have to go to the shops, sleep or eat, longer than this is fine. What you come back to it, you should have something that looks a bit like this.
It will smell deeply yeasty, almost beer-like, with plenty of bubbles popping at the surface. This is your biga.
Preheat your oven as high as it will go and place a ceramic ramekin or small pie dish in the bottom.
For the dough, put the flour into the missing bowl and rub in the yeast until it is well blended and there are no big lumps. Add the biga, water, salt and oil. Mix well until combined. Tip out onto a oiled work surface and work it for about 5-6 minutes until it is supple and elastic. This is a wet dough, so may take a bit more elbow grease than usual.
Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover and leave to rest for 1 1/2 – 2 hours until it has doubled in size and is light and bouncy.
Flour your surface generously and turn the dough out. Divide into 4. Flatten each section down a little so it is a fat strip. Fold each long side into the middle so you create a strong ‘spine’ for the bread, then fold in half so you get a long thin shape.
Flour 2 baking sheets with semolina flour and place the long shapes onto it. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rest again for about 45 minutes. Gently stretch the ends of each loaf outwards, creating the slipper shape.
Open the oven door and quickly throw a few ice cubes into the preheated ramekin, then slide both baking sheets in. The ice cubes will create steam in the oven, which will help form a good crust.
Turn the heat down to 220 and bake for 18-20 minutes. They are ready when they sound hollow when you tap them underneath.
These loaves freeze very well. Simply part-bake for 15 minutes, cool and wrap carefully. After defrosting, they will only need a few minutes in the oven to refresh.
You can add a number if delicious things to these; olives are particularly good, but so is tallegio cheese, rosemary, roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes, caramelised onions. The list is endless.