Ciabatta: Better Than A Slipper

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Julia Child once asked, "How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"  At a minimum, I can assume she wasn't referencing Italy, France, Russia, and presumably, middle-eastern countries where the bread is fragrant, and pliable, and as porous as it is textured.   Well, no matter who she was talking about, the most important message the statement carries is that bread is supremely important.  It counts; bread matters - big time.  

And bread especially counts on Sunday, when a crusty loaf is required at my table. But there was a glitch this past Sunday: I forgot to mix my favorite Sullivan St. Bakery recipe on Saturday night.  Compounding the problem, I had already poured myself a glass of wine, and I wasn't about to run to the store.  I googled quick bread recipes and came across a ciabatta recipe that only required about 3 -4 hours.  

In Italian, ciabatta, means "slipper," and is an Italian white bread with a relatively low rise. Ciabatta recipes vary by region, and some require spices, and others, milk, as part of the recipe. 

This could do, I thought, and set to work.  In the mixer, the dough was enormously wet - forebodingly so.  But, in the end, it all worked out. After baking, the loaf was full of air pockets, and light and moist, although it lacked the full flavor that an overnight ferment yields, proving, once again, that there truly is no substitute for time. 

When making this bread, it's very important to get your steam action working, it's essential to the crust.  As an alternative to the pan with water technique, you could also use a spray bottle and shot a few streams toward the bottom of the oven.  

Make sure to save what's left of the loaf in a plastic bag.  It's great for panini or muffalleta the next day. 

Ciabatta

4 cups all-purpose flour

2¼ tsp active dry yeast

2¼ cups warm (not hot) water (you might need more if you are in a dryer area)

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp sugar (not usually found in traditional ciabatta, but it really helps speed the rise)

Instructions

The dough will look very wet. 

The dough will look very wet. 

  1. Mix the sugar, water and yeast in a bowl and set aside for five minutes for the yeast to start working.

  2. Add the flour and salt and mix in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. You want the mixture to be just slightly thicker than a pancake batter– it should definitely not pull together into a firm dough.

  3. Let the mixture stand for about 15 minutes. Then turn on the stand mixer to a medium-high setting. After about six minutes, the dough will start to make a flapping sound and start rising up the sides of the bowl.

  4. At this point, switch the paddle for the dough hook and knead for another six to seven minutes until the dough starts pulling cleanly off the sides of the bowl. It will be smooth at this stage but still very sticky and loose.

  5. Grease a bowl and pour the dough into it. Cover with a plastic wrap or kitchen towel and place in a warm spot, like an oven with the pilot light on.

  6. In about 1½ to 2 hours, the dough would have tripled.

  7. Prepare a cookie sheet by lining it with parchment paper and then dusting the paper liberally with flour.

  8. Pour the dough out of the bowl and into the center of the cookie sheet. Dust the top with flour.

  9. Using a bench scraper, divide the dough into two pieces. Using the bench scraper and a wet hand if needed, shape the dough, tucking the irregular pieces underneath, until you have two flat logs. The logs should be about six inches apart. This is a rustic bread, and the wet dough is not going to hold a definite shape, so don’t even try for a beautiful, even look. This is known as an Italian slipper bread for a reason. The baked bread will turn out absolutely gorgeous, trust me, with a translucent, lit-from-within look and those gorgeous air holes.

  10. Dust some more flour over the logs, then cover them with a loose kitchen towel and place in a warm spot for about an hour or until the logs are risen and all puffy-looking.

  11. About half an hour before baking, preheat the oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone or baking stone in place. Place an empty pan in the bottom rack while preheating, then add a cup of water to it just before you place the bread in the oven.

  12. Place the ciabatta loaves directly on the baking stone by sliding the parchment off your cookie sheet. If you are really not sure how to do this, just place the entire baking sheet on top of the baking stone.

  13. Bake for 25 minutes or until the loaves are golden-brown and the bottom sounds hollow then tapped.

  14. Cool thoroughly on a rack.

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