ITALIAN COUNTRY BREAD
As promised, here's the procedure for last night's Italian bread, a fairly close rendition of Pane Francesce con Biga from Joe Ortiz's excellent The Village Baker.
I really like breads made with "biga" (BEE-gah), which is a not-quite sourdough process that involves making a starter with a small amount of yeast a few hours to a day or so before baking, allowing it time to work and develop. The result is not nearly as sour as sourdough but imparts a really flavorful yeasty, almost beery quality in the bread that we like hereabouts.
This particular recipe is a favorite because it's particularly easy and can be done between morning and night. If you start the biga at breakfast time, you can be eating the bread for dinner. It makes enough to pig out at dinner with leftovers to toast in the morning, but don't expect this fat-free bread to keep any longer than overnight!
1 1/8 cups warm water
2 cups white bread flour (or all-purpose if that's all you've got)
About 10 or 12 hours before you want the bread to come out of the oven -- I started at 7:30 a.m. for a 7 p.m. dinner -- mix the yeast (note that this is only a teaspoon) in 1/8 cup of the warm-to-the-touch water, and set it aside until the yeast starts to bubble. Put the rest of the warm water into a bowl, and stir the yeast water into it. Mix in the flour, a little at a time. The result will be a very soft, almost soupy dough. Cover it with a cloth towel and set aside to rise at room temperature for six to eight hours. It will rise way up, maybe tripling in size, and may fall back and re-rise during the day.
1 1/4 cups white bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup water
When the biga is ready, it will be full of bubbles and have a good, clean, yeasty/beery smell. The time isn't terribly critical; you can probably hurry it and make bread within four to six hours or hold it for 10 or even overnight. I did this step at 3:30 p.m., about eight hours after I started the biga.
Stir the salt into the biga right in the same bowl, then mix in the additional water (which should be VERY cold, even ice cold, to keep the rising process slow and gentle), stirring well until you've got a thin soup. Then mix in the additional flour to make a firm but soft dough that cleans the sides of the bowl. Turn it out onto a well-floured board, kneading thoroughly (and adding up to 1/2 cup additional flour if necessary) until it's smooth and dry. Pop it back into the boil, greased with a bit of olive oil; cover with the towel and let rise until doubled, about two hours.
Punch the dough down and knead it out into a flat oval on a floured board. Cut it in half, form each half into a rough baguette shape, and leave them on the floured board under a towel for about 30 minutes to rest. Then stretch them into longer baguettes and drop them into a baguette baking tray. Let them rest for another 20 minutes, then slash the tops and pop them into a preheated 450- degree oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until done. (ALTERNATIVES: If you don't have a baguette tray or don't want to use it, use a greased cookie sheet or baking stone. If you want to make one oval or round loaf instead of two baguettes, go for it, but plan to bake the larger loaf for 10 or 15 minutes longer.)
This makes an outstanding, flavorful and crusty bread that's really best hot and steaming from the oven. Despite the all-day procedure, it's really an easy bread to make, if you're going to be home anyway. For me, it broke down like this: About five minutes to make the biga in the morning. Another 15 to make and knead the dough and clean up in midafternoon. And another 10 or 15 in two quick sessions when it was time to make the loaves before dinner. Well under an hour's work, broken down into a few quick chores during the day.