Sunday, January 3, 2010

Italian Bread

The Bread Baker's Apprentice is one of those tomes I’d been seeing everywhere on the internet. The book has been roundly and effusively praised, and I’d seen so many scrumptious-looking breads on various food blogs that I was itching to get my hands on my very own copy. My in-laws were the kind santas who bestowed this particular gift this Christmas.

We spent the holidays with them in central Pennsylvania, and I perused the book on the car trip home to Connecticut. I am not one to shy away from dense or complicated tomes, cooking or otherwise. However, this book prefaces the recipes with a solid 50 pages of technical detail, and I had a hard time focusing, especially since the car was gently swaying to and fro and the maniacal swervings of other drivers were a distraction.

Initially, I was a bit daunted, but when it came time to bake, I realized that I could just ignore the dense explanations and go right to the recipes. I’d advise you to do the same. The book’s heart is in the right place, but author Peter Reinhart is an enthusiast.  Like many enthusiasts, he gets a bit carried away. His passion for the most obscure aspects of bread and bread making – the finder points of yeast, the merits of every flour known to God or man, the chemical reactions inherent in the leavening process – are certainly informative, but I can’t reciprocate this level of ardor for the art and science of bread.

My goal is to reliably bake a good loaf of bread at home.  I don’t want to have to buy much, if any, special equipment to do so. A little background knowledge about why X vs. Y is a good way to proceed, or is a best strategy for crusty vs. soft loaves, is welcome – but I can only absorb so much in a go.

The actual recipes in the book are interesting and not really complicated. They involve a lot of steps, but mostly, this is just the author being thorough and clear. There are also some pretty technical instructions for getting a really crusty loaf of bread, but I largely ignored them. One does have to do a bit of flipping around between pages, as many of the recipes involve two batches of yeasted dough – a pre-ferment done a day or two before (or longer for sourdoughs) and the second batch, incorporating the first, which makes the final loaf.

The book emphasizes that serious home bakers really need Baking Stones. Without a baking stone, it’s difficult to achieve the thick, craggy crust that begs for a soft oozy cheese. I don’t own a baking stone, so until I overcome my frugalness, I’m sticking with breads whose character doesn’t depend on a crispy outer core.

Considering that I halved the recipe, used the wrong flour (all-purpose was all I had on hand), didn’t use a baking stone, and skipped some of the recommended oven-preparation steps, this bread is probably an amazing and improbable success. It’s not quite as good as some fancy Italian breads I’ve had from artisanal bakeries, but it’s an order of magnitude better than what you can pick up at most grocery stores.

What I made departs substantially enough from what’s printed in the book for me to feel comfortable giving my “recipe.” Just be aware that I am a somewhat lazy baker, and if you want to bake competition-worthy bread, as opposed to just dinner-worthy bread, there’s a bit more to the process.

Next, I’m going to tackle the Challah, which I’ve made with some success before and about which I will be able to provide reasonably intelligent comparisons.

Making this bread is a two-day process because of the pre-ferment stage. Most of the bread recipes in this cookbook call for a pre-ferment stage with a small amount of yeast and a slow, cool rise. I’ll spare you the technical explanation. Since I’ve only made this bread with that technique, and it came out nicely, I have nothing negative to say for it.

I halved the recipe because I only wanted one loaf. That’s about all we can eat up before bread goes stale, and I bake so often that I didn’t want to have a ton of extra for the freezer.

Italian Bread
Adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread

1 ¼ cups flour (I used all-purpose, but bread flour is recommended)
¾ tsp. active dry yeast
½ cup water, warm room temp (about 80 degrees F)

Stir together the flour and the yeast. Add water until everything comes together – you may not need the full half cup. Either knead dough in your stand mixer with a bread hook or knead by hand until the dough is soft and pliable. If kneading by hand, you’ll want to lightly flour your work surface.  This is the biga post-knead and pre-rise.

Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to it, rolling the dough in oil to coat it. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until nearly doubled, 2-4 hours.

Knead lightly to de-gas, return to bowl, re-cover, and let rise in refrigerator overnight. You can keep it in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Italian Bread dough
1 biga
1 ¼ cups flour (I used all-purpose; bread flour recommended)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
½ teaspoon active dry yeast, slightly heaping
1 tsp. malted milk powder (optional – use 2 tsp. sugar if omitting)
2 tsp. olive oil or other vegetable oil
up to ½ cup water, warm room temp (about 80 F)

Remove the biga from the fridge about an hour before making the dough. Divide into 4 small pieces.

Stir together the flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and malted milk powder in a bowl. Add the biga, olive oil, and ¼ cup of water. Stir, adding water, until a ball forms. The dough should be slightly sticky but not batter-like.

Knead dough by hand for 10 minutes (you should lightly flour your surface if kneading by hand) or knead with the dough hook in your stand mixer until the dough passes the “windowpane” test, meaning you can pinch off a bit of dough and stretch it so thin, without the dough breaking, that it is semi-transparent.

Place in lightly oiled bowl, making sure you get oil all over the dough, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temp for about 2 hours, or until nearly doubled.

Punch down and allow the dough to rest for 5 minutes. Form the dough into a torpedo shape and let rise on a baking sheet or stone. I used a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and lightly sprinkled with all-purpose flour. Allow to rise for an hour or two or until dough is at least 1 ½ times it original size.

Now, this is where his instructions get finicky. In order to recreate, insofar as possible, the conditions of brick-fired ovens that make really crusty breads, Mr. Reinhart has provided elaborate instructions that involve baking stones, pans filled with boiling water, and – I am not making this up – gardening equipment.

These directives, and my inability and unwillingness to comply with them, were part of the reason I chose Italian instead of French bread, since I was forewarned that my failure to comply would mean a less-crisp crust.

I’m giving instructions for what I actually did, but if you don’t feel like filling a cast-iron pan with boiling water when you bake the bread, it will probably come out just fine. I was feeling semi-ambitious, and I have both an under-utilized cast iron skillet and a tea kettle, so it wasn’t much extra effort.

Preheat oven to 500, with a cast-iron or other heatproof pan set on the lowest rack of the oven and the baking rack in the middle. You want to preheat the pan.

Bring a kettle of water to boil on the stove while the oven is preheating.

Place dough in oven. Pour one cup of boiling water into the cast-iron skillet and close the oven door. Repeat in 30 seconds, and lower the oven temperature to 450.

Bake the bread for about an additional 20 minutes at 450. Let cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing/serving.

I baked this to go with homemade cream of tomato soup. I lightly toasted slices of the bread, topped them with shredded gruyere, and popped them under the broiler again for a few minutes to melt the cheese. Allow me to proffer this as an excellent serving suggestion.

My husband ate most of the remaining bread for breakfast over the next couple of mornings. I think he ate it plain, but I would have slathered it in butter and strawberry preserves, because that’s clearly how God intended breakfast bread to be eaten.

Printable recipe here.


  1. Becky, that looks like perfect bread... great work!!!

  2. Thanks -- it was at least good for a first try! :)