Ah, we’ve reached my favourite week!
I love to bake cakes and pies/tarts, but bread is my first love when it comes to baking, and I was really excited to find out the technical challenge for this week.
There is nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread. Not only is it incredibly easy and much cheaper to make, but you just don’t get the same smell and taste from shop-bought loaves.
For me, the smell of a loaf baking in the oven is a very evocative one. It brings back memories of watching my father kneading and shaping the loaves he would bake when on holiday in Italy. It reminds me of weekends at home in Switzerland, when I would wake to the smell of a freshly baked loaf drifting up from my mother’s bread machine in the kitchen. It carries with it pictures of bakeries on French streets, days off, therapy in the form of kneading dough, Jesus breaking a loaf to share with His disciples, and above all, family.
It is prayer, in the form of dough.
Having spent most family holidays in Italy when I was growing up, there is a certain nostalgia for me found in tomato and mozzarella salad, fresh basil, homemade pasta and pizza, and in focaccia and ciabatta breads.
We have always been surprised by Italian bread. They are such wonderful cooks, but on the whole, we have found that they really are not bakers! The bread we get in restaurants or supermarkets in Italy is often dry and bland. But when someone makes focaccia or ciabatta properly, it is a pleasant surprise.
So this week, in the spirit of nostalgia, I decided to make both.
You can find my ‘signature bake’ for the week, my Parma ham, rosemary and olive focaccia recipe, here. And as for the technical challenge, well…
You can find the recipe here.
The ciabatta turned out beautifully, although there is definitely room for improvement for next time. It really is a tricky bread to get right – I can see why it was a perfect technical challenge.
It is so sticky and stringy as a dough, which makes it very difficult to handle and shape, so the loaves came out slightly flat and wide. This could probably be improved by leaving the initial half of the dough (the biga) to rise for longer – due to
starting too late in the day time constraints, I couldn’t leave the dough to rise for the 6+ hours recommended, so I only left it for about 3 hours. Some recipes even suggest leaving it 12 hours! It would probably have also made for a slightly lighter dough, as the taste, while yummy, was a little dense.
Essentially, as Paul Hollywood emphasized, it would seem that the best thing is to “be patient”. This is usually the case with bread (and part of why I love making it – it trains me in patience!), but particularly with this one. It is akin to a sourdough loaf, although with that the starter is left for over a week!
I could potentially also have shaped them a little better, but I was trying to avoid handling them too much, so it was less ‘shaping’ and more just ‘scooping and dropping’ onto the baking sheet.
Still, despite all of this, the bread was delicious. And a lunch of bruschetta topped with juicy tomatoes, fresh basil, soft mozzarella and drizzles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar was just what the doctor ordered, bringing a little bit of Italian sunshine and calm to a grey English day.