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Italian Bread

My first bread in the new house, and it decided to struggle with me. Yes, I had an argument with bread.

I make nearly all my breads from my favorite bread book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart.┬áMy friend K gave me this book as a gift a few years ago, and it’s the best book on bread baking I’ve ever owned.

The biga, day two.

The biga, day two.

Your biga is also known as the starter. There are several types of starter, which one you use depends upon what kind of bread you’re planning to make, and it does count toward your total flour weight.

Because of the starter, most bread recipes take at least two days to make, unless you’re really smart and make a whole bunch in advance.

Pieces of biga.

Now, you don’t just throw this in the mixing bowl, the biga has to come to room temperature to be of any use at all, otherwise you’ll shock your yeast and won’t get any rise out of it.

Gently cut the biga into about ten pieces with your pastry cutter and let rest until it comes to room temperature. This should take about an hour.

Be sure to cover it with a towel or plastic wrap for about an hour. This is where I went wrong, I wandered off and did some other chores and the biga pieces got a bit dry. Don’t let this happen to you.

Sift the dry ingredients together, remember what I’ve said about this before: how many times have you bitten into a delicious looking homemade chocolate chip cookie and gotten a nasty surprise in the form of a clump of baking soda? Sift your dry ingredients together people, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it.

With this recipe, dry ingredients include: flour, yeast, salt, and sugar.

Note the scale, please.

Note the scale, please.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from Reinhart is that you should weigh most of your ingredients instead of going by cup measure. The reason for this is really quite simple: depending upon any number of conditions, no matter how practiced you are at baking, you will never pull a cup of flour the same way twice. Never. Better to do by weight than the dip/level/pour method we learned from Betty Crocker.

In the mixing bowl, mix together the wet ingredients, including the biga pieces. I used to dissolve my yeast in the water, but have found that adding the yeast to the dry ingredients (yes, even when it’s cake yeast) and then letting the mixer do the work of dissolving it works ever so much better.

Olive oil for Italian bread, of course.

Olive oil for Italian bread, of course.

The water should be lukewarm: between 90F and 100F degrees. Don’t kill your yeast.

I love this measuring shot glass. Here it’s holding a tablespoon of olive oil, this is Italian bread after all.

After a few minutes of mixing with the paddle attachment or when your a cup or two from having added all the flour to the dough, switch to the dough hook and begin kneading.

It's all in the wrists now.

It's all in the wrists now.

My KitchenAid isn’t strong enough to bring the dough the rest of the way home, unless I’m standing right there holding it, it travels all over the counter and I can only do about the first four minutes before I get worried about the motor. This one can take it all the way, someday, someday… Anyway, the first kneading should take about ten minutes. I went for 20 on this one before it finally passed the windowpane test, and had the right feel and smell.

Then it’s back to the bowl for first rising. I like to rinse my bowl with warm water just before I get to the proofing stage, and then lightly oil it. Roll the ball of dough around to lightly coat it with oil, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

And then… two hours must pass.

Twice what it once was.

Isn’t that pretty? The hole in the middle is from the thermometer — I take its temperature all through the early process. We’re ready for the next step, as the dough has clearly doubled in size.

Gently, gently remove the dough from the bowl and separate into two roughly equal pieces. and then form into batards, all the while trying not to degas the dough too much. The batards should rest for five minutes before final shaping.

Batards!

Batards!

With a little rock and roll we get a torpedo shape. These did not quite turn out how I wanted, but at this point in the process you can overwork the dough, unlike during kneading when you can mangle the hell out of it.

Torpedoes!

Torpedoes!

Spray or brush with oil on the loaves, cover loosely with plastic wrap (I reuse what had been on the bowl — if I’m really on the ball, I still have the plastic wrap from the biga bowl, unless the biga is one I’ve pre-made and stored in the freezer) and a towel, then go away for an hour or so. Or until the loaves are one and a half times larger.

Then we pop ’em in a pre-heated oven and…

After about 20 minutes, we have bread! It should be turned 180 degrees halfway through baking. Also, your roommate will probably be a good measure for time if you don’t have a timer; popping into the room every few minutes to ask, “Is it bread yet?”

Finish

Finish

These are far from my best — but as a first go with an unfamiliar stove in a new kitchen, they’re not half bad.

You know what’s really cool about baking bread though? Other people’s joy. I love everything about bread making: the feel of it, the smell, every step in the process. I don’t understand it all yet — Reinhart is a great educator and I’ll be learning it forever. In the end though, the best reward is right when I get to say, after the loaves have cooled for an hour, “Okay, it’s bread now.” And seeing La Cyn, with a huge smile on her face, forego the lemon bar we got at Selmarie for dessert to do this …

... is sweeter than honey.

... is sweeter than honey.

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