All is not well in the Rees family house. M.D. is out of sorts, possibly ill but with no real signs other than being distressed. My wife has taken the day off to be with her, leaving me with the job of making bread. But, today is not like normal bread making days. Today I also have to make three other (non-Paul related) breads for friends and ourselves. This is going to a difficult and challenging day. Hopefully the ciabatta will be the easiest and quickest to do.
Ciabatta is a, notoriously, wet bread. Now, I like a wet dough as much as the next person but for 500g flour I normally add about 320ml water; for ciabatta Paul has us add 400ml of water to the same amount of flour. For this reason it is advised to be done in a mixer using a dough hook.
Mixing and Kneading
Um, I don’t really think this section has relevance when a machine is used. But never mind. The ingredients are put in with 300ml water and they are mixed on a low speed to bring the dough together. Once this has been achieved (2 mins) the rest of the water is added slowly whilst the mixer is turned up to a medium speed. This does get messy as the water splashes everywhere – all good fun! You know when it is done because the dough stretches very easily and it is soft, almost silky (8 mins). And that is it.
Because Ciabatta is only proved once you need to keep the air in the dough after proving whilst shaping and transferring to a baking tray. For this reason you are advised to use a square plastic container; 2 litres will do. So when you turn it out, onto a very heavily floured surface (and then heavily floured on top), it comes out in a square shape; this means it will require little more than cutting up into 4 logs and placing them on the baking trays.
I always chuckle when I see the instructions Paul gives: cut the dough into four, stretch them and place them onto the tray. Try and pick up a ciabatta log in dough form and not let it stretch – it is not possible, they are too soft, almost fluid like. I think this instruction is redundant, but maybe it is there to stop people panicking when it does happen.
They are left to rest for 20 mins whilst the oven preheats to 220.
Baked for 25 mins, these loafs fill the home with a warm, comforting smell that reminds me of the early mornings in Rome. Now, I don’t know if that is an invented memory or if Rome really did smell like that; but that is not really the point, it sends me back to walking the streets in dim light of a Roman morning. Very tranquil.
The bread itself is, as ciabatta should be, amazing! The crust is probably the best thing about ciabatta, it is fantastic. The crumb is irregular and soft, it makes a brilliant peanut butter sandwich.
Ciabatta is a great, versatile bread. It can be made into pizzas, sandwiches, crustinis, croutons, toast, bruschettas; in fact Paul follows this recipe with a load of bruschetta recipes (thus making his 100 bread recipes idea rather false) so maybe I will use these four loaves to make them.
[Amendment: the following day I have discovered that my 4 loaves has become one loaf . . . I don’t think I can blame the dogs for this one! So I cannot make the bruschettas, and as they are not real bread recipes I will replace them with some recipes from Paul’s other books just to make sure I have 100 breads]
History of Bread
Not the most reliable of sources, Plutarch was a writer of the Roman period who enjoyed writing biographies comparing Roman figures with Greek ones. In this case he is writing about the semi-mythical lawgiver of Sparta, Lycurgus. Plutarch’s descriptions of Sparta are often fanciful, or based on a more contemporary Sparta which can often seem to have been almost a tourist trap rather than an authentic representation of Sparta at the height of her supremacy. The passage below is about young Spartans being voted in to join the highly competitive military messes, using bread to cast their votes:
“And they say that a candidate for membership in one of these messes underwent the following ordeal. Each of the mess-mates took in his hand a bit of soft bread, and when a servant came along with a bowl upon his head, then they cast it into this without a word, like a ballot, leaving it just as it was if he approved of the candidate, but if he disapproved, squeezing it tight in his hand first.  For the flattened piece of bread had the force of a perforated, or negative, ballot. And if one such is found in the bowl, the candidate is not admitted to the mess, because they wish all its members to be congenial. The candidate thus rejected is said to have been ‘caddished,’ for ‘caddichus’ is the name of the bowl into which they cast the pieces of bread” Plutarch, Lycurgus, 12.5-6