So…a few folks have been asking about the bread. As Michele mentioned in the opening post, one of our major problems was finding really good crusty Italian bread to go with our meals. As many of you may know, at an Italian table good bread isn’t optional. It’s not a side item or an afterthought. It’s the thing that makes the meal complete. We just had to find some. In such a food-obsessed city as New York, you’d think this wouldn’t be such a challenge, but you’d be surprised. We were. This search turned into a quest that ended up becoming a serious hands-on exploration into old school Italian baking. Here’s the story…
We searched a fairly broad swath of our surrounding neighborhoods for a decent spot that would have what we were looking for. Our nearby grocery stores? Much to our disappointment, the selections here were utterly hopeless. Just a bunch of spongy, gummy, crustless blobs with very little in the way of taste or texture. Even their so-called ‘artisan’ selections weren’t much more than expensive, equally underwhelming versions of the brand-name varieties. At the dozens of nearby bodegas, convenience stores and NYC’s famous corner delis you’d at least think there would be some under-the-radar local brand, or a savvy proprietor’s choice selection, but we found it hard to come up with anything that was even passable. Even our favorite Italian deli that’s usually the go-to spot for all the delicious treats and specialty items you can’t find anywhere else was a surprising letdown in the bread department. To add insult to injury, we’d been handing over Manhattan’s famously obscene prices for the privilege of being regularly disappointed. I vividly remember the time we paid $7 for a loaf of decidedly mediocre ciabatta, had a few slices of it with a meal and the rest ended up going stale a few days later because neither of us could find an excuse to eat it. That was just the last straw. We had to come up with something better that didn’t require a trip down to Mott St. or out to the Bronx every week. It was time to go to the source…and find some little old Italian ladies.
I searched around on the internet for quite a while, wading through a million dubious sounding recipes, finding things like ’20 min rustic quick bread’ and ‘Authentic Italian bread from your bread machine’. Nooooo!!! It was starting to look really bleak, until finally I stumbled upon these two lovely ladies, the Simili Sister.
After reading a few articles and seeing them work with simple tools, in a simple kitchen with nothing but basic ingredients and their hands (and narrating entirely in Italian), I knew everything was going to be OK…we’d found our teachers. The bread that I ultimately ended up making is based essentially on one of their recipes.
So – Michele and I have a long-running joke about Italian ‘recipes’. We’ll delve into that at another time, but suffice it to say that what is actually written down is usually just a framework, or a ‘suggestion’ as Michele likes to call it. It should be noted that your basic Italian ‘recipe’ may or may not contain things like:
- All the ingredients
- All the actual steps
- Measurements in units you’ve heard of
- Instructions to measure things using items like ‘Nonna’s bowl’
The bottom line is that to fully understand what it will take, you really need to watch these ladies work to see how it is done…and then write it all down yourself. They don’t need to write things down because they just KNOW. They learned by watching and doing, and most importantly – caring deeply about what they are making. Although this method sometimes leads to some challenges in the documentation, I’ll take it every time over someone who wants to make things ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ at the expense of making it really good. And their bread is really good. But…it should be noted that I made this about a dozen times before I really understood what they were doing at each step, and each step has to be done in a certain way for it to come out properly. To be fair, it was still delicious even when it looked a little wonky, but I kept tweaking and practicing until I really got a sense of what was supposed to be happening, and how each step was done . This old-school way of baking is all about having a feel for touch and texture, and it’s 80% about how you do it rather than strictly following step 1, step 2, step 3. So the ‘recipe’ is below. But you should definitely watch the ladies in action here to see what it’s really all about:
(via an Irish guy from the Philly suburbs in a tiny NYC kitchen):
(Note that I made some conversions from their slightly bizarre and mysterious mix of english/metric/Italian units and down-scaled the quantities for a single loaf, as the original recipe from the video above makes 2 good-sized loaves)
1 cube yeast = 4.5 tbsp (fresh) = 1.5 tbsp (dry) = 4.5 tsp
100 grams water = 0.42 US cups (1 gram H2O = 0.035 oz) (note that oil is similar)
100 grams All-purpose flour = 0.8 US cups
3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon
This recipe is a two-day process!
Be sure to take note of each of the rise and rest times, do the math to count backwards so you start each step at a sensible time and plan your tasks accordingly (or you could end up baking at 2 am…don’t ask how I know that). None of the individual steps actually takes very long in terms of actively doing things. The bulk of the time is just allowing the dough to rest and rise at each phase. If you allow plenty of time, you won’t be tempted to rush any of the steps.
The Pre Starter (aka ‘the Biga’):
All purpose flour 1 cup + 2 tbsp (~ 9 oz total)
Water 3/4 cup (slightly warm to the touch , but not hot)
Brewer’s yeast* 1/10 small cube (* I use about 1/2 tsp dry yeast)
- Mix yeast and water in a large bowl – dissolving the yeast completely.
- Add flour and mix in the bowl to form into a loose, wet dough
(Note: After trying a few different methods, I mixed the yeast and water in a measuring cup first, put 1/2 the flour in the bowl, added the yeast/water mixture and blended thoroughly. Then slowly added the rest of the flour and mixed as I went. This seemed to all blend together much better.
- Cover the large bowl (with a loose lid – not sealed with plastic wrap).
- Allow to rest 18-24 hours
3.25 cups All purpose flour
1.625 cups Water ( +/- Adjust amount to achieve proper consistency)
0.375 tbsp Brewer’s yeast ( 0.375 tbsp = 1.1 teaspoon)
1.2 tsp Salt
(After the Pre-starter has rested 18-24 hours…)
In a large bowl:
- Place the pre-starter (the ‘biga’) into a very large bowl (note that it will ultimately need to be large enough for all the ingredients)
- Add the yeast and a portion of the water and dissolve the yeast, mixing by hand
- Once the yeast is pretty well-dissolved, mix thoroughly with the pre-starter/’biga’ until the all the contents are blended together
- Begin adding some flour, along with the salt
- Mix by hand, scooping from the side to the bottom and lifting and stretching the mixture, and allowing it to fall back into the center of the bowl. This is a critical step – It allows some air to be absorbed into the dough as you mix and the stretching effect really forms the texture that the finished bread will have.
- Continue adding water and flour incrementally and mixing by hand as described above until all the ingredients are absorbed
- Continue mixing in this manner until the dough reaches the desired consistency:
- The dough should ‘follow you without breaking’ – meaning it will pull a few inches with some elasticity and overall have a tacky, stretchy, slightly fibrous texture.
- Put some olive oil into another large bowl, transfer the dough to that bowl, coating the outside of the dough with the oil and forming it into a loose ball
- Cover and allow the formed dough to rest for about 2-3 hours to rise in a reasonably warm location.
- Once the dough has risen – it can be shaped:
- Spread some flour onto the work surface
- Turn the bowl over to release the dough onto the floured surface – it will be loose & soft, and will spread out somewhat flat on its own
- Starting from the outside edge furthest away from you, lift the edge and lift/pull towards the center, rotate a bit and repeat, going all the way around the circumference one time (just place the lifted edge lightly into the center as you release, do not press down in the center as this will flatten the dough too much)
- Once you’ve gone around one full time, the dough will be a smaller, slightly flat circle.
- Then, take one side and fold it towards the center, pressing slightly away with your thumbs as you set it down
- Repeat a few times until the whole dough has been folded up into a somewhat smooth oblong shape
- Rotate the dough 90 degrees, flip it over (smooth side down) and repeat the procedure, folding the far edge towards the center until you have a relatively smooth-topped hemi-sphere
- With the smooth side up, gently form the ball further by repeatedly sliding your hands underneath the edges on each side as you simultaneously rotate the ball of dough, working it around a number of rotations and shaping it as you go, until you have formed a smooth-topped ball that is almost a sphere (with a slightly flat bottom)
Once the dough is formed, take the dough knife, slide it underneath and gently lift the dough from the work surface and place it onto a flour-coated sheet or wood cutting board
Cover again with a large bowl and allow it to rise again for 1 hour. (make sure the covering bowl is large enough that there is room for the dough to expand as it rises)
To bake: (preheat oven to 400)
Ideally, the dough should be placed onto a very hot oven floor, hot baking stone or hot baking sheet.
- Coat a second sheet with semolina flour
- With the risen dough still on its flour-coated sheet, remove the bowl covering it
- Gently flip the dough over onto the second sheet smooth side down
- You can now slide the dough easily onto the hot baking sheet, which should be placed immediately into the hot oven
- Bake approximately 1 hour
Get me some olive oil…stat!