A few weeks ago, in my ninth entry into my bread category, I expressed my desire to take this whole yeast/flour/water/tada! thing a step further, and begged for some cookbook guidance. At the end of it, with almost equal votes for Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Bread Bible and Peter Reinhart’s Bread Maker’s Apprentice, I was still torn, changing my mind back and forth until the final seconds of my order, eventually settling on the latter. On the day it arrived, I tore into it, certain that something would jump right off the page, and I’d be up to my elbows in flour, once again, that night. Instead, the opposite happened—I froze with terror. Bigas and poolishes and oh my god, all of these steps and seriously, are there any breads you can make in just a few hours and really, it was very humbling. And just like that, my fairy godmother of cookbooks found a way to deposit Berenbaum’s tome on my front step, equally intimidating. I was certain that I was completely over my head, silly to think that taking something one step further wouldn’t be such an involved process. What did I think it would be? One, two, three and then you’re Poilane?
Fast forward to this past Saturday night, when my husband had to go into work for just a half-hour for some emergency testing, blah blah (yes, I asked what “her” name was), before we went out but of course something went wrong, he was stuck there for hours and there I was, on the sofa watching a two-hour E! True Hollywood Story about Jessica and Ashley Simpson. It was utterly fascinating, I have no shame admitting, and I learned a lot. (Fine, a little shame, but not as much as I should.) Yet, on a table across the room, my 1,000 bound pages of bread instruction sat sneering at me, and I knew they had my number. I have time to stuff my head with minutiae as the fact that Ashley is a trained ballerina and Jessica was originally a Christian singer but not time to try a pre-ferment? Busted, indeed.
So, at 10 p.m. (yes, after the E!THS was over), I made my first biga, which is the Italian version of a homemade starter that precisely resembles in ingredients and form an actual bread dough and is treated similarly. You mix, knead, rise and deflate it, and then rest it in the fridge overnight or up to three days, or in the freezer for a couple months, and when you want to use it, you bring it to room temp, break it into pieces, and mix it into your bread dough. Oooh, scary. (I’m such a wuss, right?) Alas, it was no trouble at all; Sunday afternoon I mixed it into the components for Italian bread, kneaded, let it rise, deflated, formed into batards, let it rise again, slashed the loves, filled a pan with water and baked the breads for but 20 minutes before they were ready to go. Yes, those are a lot of steps, and yes, this is a bread for those of you who really want to get involved in such things but it is simply not something a beginner can’t do. Reinhart’s instructions are simple, logical and they do lead to a tasty loaf.
Italian bread, eh? This would be a good time to point out that I have rarely, if ever, in my life had proper Italian bread. I tend to come across mostly Americanized versions, sort of shortened French baguettes with hard crusts and a salt-leaning flavor. This apparently authentic version has a firm-soft crust, a fairly neutral flavor and a sturdy but moist texture. It wasn’t exactly what I had expected, but it was delicious, and I think it has a lot to do with that extra fermentation—like wine, cheese and my dashing good looks (ha), bread dough improves with age.
We dipped pieces in olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and ate the bread alongside fresh basil-flecked fettuccini with a ton of wild mushrooms and later, a strawberry rhubarb crumble, but all I’m getting into today is the bread—because Rome was on and I didn’t take pictures or write down measurements, not because I’m trying to be a tease. Anyway, I vow to be less intimidated by these books, and in my pipe dream, the one in which my life flows along a predictable schedule like a well-oiled machine, I vow to try a new bread a week. Yet in real life, the one facing the realities of three glasses of wine with dinner and deadlines, oh the deadlines, I’ve got enough leftover bread to last us weeks, as I ponder my next move.
From Reinhart: In Italy nearly every pre-ferment, including wild yeast or sourdough, is called a biga. So if you are making a recipe from another source that calls for biga, make sure you check to see exactly what kind of biga it requires.
You can substitute all-purpose flour for the bread flour if you prefer, or blend all-purpose and bread flour.
Biga will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for about 3 months. You can use it as soon as it ferments, but I prefer to give it an overnight retarding to bring out more flavor.
Makes about 18 ounces
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons to 1 cup water, at room temperature
Stir together the flour and yeast in a 4-quart bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the water, stirring until everything comes together and makes a coarse ball (or mix on low speed for 1 minute with the paddle attachment). Adjust the flour or water, according to need, so that the dough is neither too sticky nor too stiff. (It is better to err on the sticky side, as you can adjust easier during kneading. It is harder to add water once the dough firms up.
Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead for 4 to 6 minutes (or mix on medium speed with the dough hook for 4 minutes), or until the dough is soft and pliable, tacky but not sticky. The internal temperature should be 77 to 81°F.
Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and ferment at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours, or until it nearly doubles in size.
Remove the dough from the bowl, knead it lightly to degas, and return it to the bowl, covering the bowl with plastic wrap. Place the bowl in the refrigerator overnight. You can keep this in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or freeze it in an airtight plastic bag for up to 3 months.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Peter Reinhart
From Reinhart: The use of diastatic barley malt powder produces better color because it will accelerate the enzyme activity and thus promote sugar breakout from the starch. You can also use nondiastatic barley malt syrup, which will contribute flavor more than color, or make this bread without any malt, since there some malt already added to most brands of bread flour (the pre-ferment will contribute some enzymes of its own). Both powder and syrup can be purchased through King Arthur Flour.
Makes two 1-pound loaves
3 1/2 cups biga
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 2/3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon diastatic barley malt powder (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil, vegetable oil, or shortening
3/4 cup to 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water, lukewarm (90 to 100°F)
Semolina flour or cornmeal for dusting
Remove the biga from the refrigerator 1 hour before making the dough. Cut it into about 10 small pieces with a pastry scraper or serrated knife. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to take off the chill.
Stir together the flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and malt powder in a 4-quart bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add the biga pieces, olive oil, and 3/4 cup water and stir together (or mix on low speed with the paddle attachment) until a ball forms, adjusting the water or flour according to need. The dough should be slightly sticky and soft, but not batterlike or very sticky. If the dough feels tough and stiff, add more water to soften (it is better to have the dough too soft than too stiff at this point).
Sprinkle flour on the counter, transfer the dough to the counter, and begin kneading (or mixing on medium speed with the dough hook). Knead (or mix) for about 10 minutes, adding flour as needed, until the dough is tacky, but not sticky, and supple. The dough should register 77 to 81 degrees F. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
Ferment at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size.
Gently divide the dough into 2 equal pieces of about 18 ounces each. Carefully form the pieces into batards, instructions below, degassing the dough as little as possible. Lightly dust with a sprinkle of flour, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and let rest for 5 minutes. Then complete the shaping, extending the loaves to about 12 inches in length. Line a sheet pan with baking parchment and dust with semolina flour or cornmeal. Place the loaves on the pan and lightly mist with spray oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap.
Proof at room temperature for about 1 hour, or until the loaves have grown to about 1Â½ times their original size.
Preheat the oven to 500°F, having an empty heavy duty sheet pan or cast-iron fying pan on the top shelf or oven floor. Score the breads with 2 parallel, diagonal slashes or 1 long slash.
For loaves, generously dust a peel or the back of a sheet pan with semolina flour or cornmeal and very gently transfer the loaves to the peel or pan. Transfer the dough to the baking stone (or bake on the sheet pan). Pour 1 cup hot water into the steam pan and close the door. After 30 seconds, spray the walls of the oven with water the close the door. Repeat once more after another 30 seconds. After the final spray, lower the oven setting to 450°F (or 400°F*) and bake until done, rotating 180 degrees, if necessary, for even baking. It should take about 20 minutes for loaves. The loaves should be golden brown and register at least 200°F at the center.
Transfer the loaves to a cooling rack and cool for at least 1 hour before slicing or serving.
* If you prefer a crustier loaf, lower the oven temperature to 400 degrees F after the steaming and increase the baking time. This will thicken the crust and give it more crunch.
To Form a Bâtard (Torpedo)
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Peter Reinhart
A bâtard (literally, “bastard”) is a torpedo-shaped loaf 6 to 12 inches in length.
Gently pat the dough into a rough rectangle. Without degassing the piece of dough, fold the bottom third of dough, letter style, up to the center and press to seal, creasing surface tension on the outer edge. Fold the remaining dough over the top and use the edge of your hand to seal the seam closed and to increase the surface tension all over. Set the bâtards aside either for proofing or to rest for further shaping.