Imagine the scene…. A 19th century Italian olive farmer in Puglia has finished his morning’s work in the grove and takes a rest under a tree for his lunch. He unwraps the cloth to reveal a crusty loaf of ciabatta stuffed with creamy soft cheese, ripe tomatoes and thin slices of ham.
A bread steeped in Italian tradition going back centuries, recipes passed down from Nonna to Mama through many generations, a taste of Italy unchanged for millennia…
Ciabbatta is a 1980s child! The same age as Prince William to be precise.
That’s right. 1982. Bakers in Italy were concerned about the rising popularity of sandwiches made from imported French baguettes which was taking away their business. So a passionate ex racing car driver named Arnaldo Cavallari retreated to his kitchens until he had created the recipe for Ciabatta.
Naming it after the Italian word for ‘slipper’ due to its shape, a legend that has adorned delis and snack bars the world over was born.
Versions vary around Italy; in the north a crisper crust with a soft light crumb, in Tuscany a denser crumb with a more open texture is favoured. Traditionally made with a strong wheat flour but it is varied with wholemeal flours and added flavours such as olives or marjoram.
It’s designed to be sliced horizontally along the loaf and not down like a traditional slice, the perfect sandwich shape.
It’s made from a very wet dough, Cavallari says it should be an 80% hydration or 800ml of liquid for every 1000g of flour.
Difficult to knead too, so a mixer with a dough hook is really required here.
It’s also a bread which needs to be started the day before as it uses a pre – ferment called a ‘biga’ as a starter. This is nothing too complicated, you simply mix together yeast, flour and water into a sloppy dough, cover and leave at room temperature overnight. I usually make mine on a Friday or Saturday night if I know I can bake at lunchtime the next day.
In the morning you have what looks like a bubbling liquid on the surface but is actually quite stable and elastic when you dive into it.
The overnight process has allowed the gluten in the flour to start strengthening which some people believe was originally needed due to the lower protein content of traditional Italian flour. The pre – ferment helped to develop the gluten more and thus give it a firmer texture. It also gives the yeast time to work its magic and develop the all important flavour.
The shaping of the final loaf is tricky in the home environment. Pro bakers make it look very easy, flipping the dough from proving boards to baking trays with ease. You need to make sure that you flour your surface well and use a decent dough cutter. Try to get your pieces as even in size and shape as possible. Don’t worry if they look a little flat at the shaping stage, they will puff up in the oven I promise!
Here I must credit Ballymaloe Cookery School for first introducing me to the process of how to make ciabatta and for this recipe.
7 g fresh yeast
400 ml warm water
500g strong white bread flour
In a large, non metallic, mixing bowl crumble the fresh yeast and pour on 50ml of the water, blood temperature is best. Allow this to sit for about 10 minutes until it turns creamy and a bit frothy. If you want to use dried yeast then just halve the quantity of yeast.
Then add in the rest of the water and the flour and mix really well with a wooden spoon. It should come together into a gloopy, thick, pasty dough. Cover this with cling film and allow to sit at room temperature overnight or for up to 24 hours.
When ready the biga should have about doubled in size and have a beery fermented smell.
7g fresh yeast
400ml warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
500g strong white bread flour
Take the bowl of your mixer and crumble the yeast into the bottom. Add on 100ml of the warm water and let sit for ten minutes. If using dried yeast, halve the quantity of yeast.
N.B. You can replace the 100ml of water with milk here and it becomes Ciabatta Al Latte.
Add in the oil, remaining water and the biga. The remaining biga can be put into a jar and mixed in with your next batch for extra flavour. Best to keep it in the fridge.
Blend with the paddle beater until it is mixed through. Then add the sieved flour and salt and mix for a further 10 minutes.
Change the paddle to the dough hook. Beat for about 20 – 25 minutes until it comes away clean from the side of the bowl and is a firm yet sticky stringy mass. Get it mixing at the highest speed you can. It will still be very wet at this stage.
Remove this to a big oiled bowl which is large enough so that the dough can expand. Cover and leave at room temperature until it has doubled in size. This should be between one and two hours depending on the conditions in your kitchen.
Flour your work surface well. The dough is very sticky.
N.B. Do not knock back the dough!
Gently stretch and shape it to make an even slightly rectangular shape. Using your dough cutter, cut into even size pieces and fold over on to itself to create that ‘slipper’ form. This amount of dough makes 4 big loaves or 6 – 8 smaller ones depending on what you want.
Flour your baking trays. I’m actually using fine polenta at the moment which brings a lovely final crunch to the finished loaf.
Gently get your loaves onto the tray, cover and leave to rest for about 40 – 45 minutes.
Pre – heat your oven 220 ° C conventional / 200 ° C fan.
When the loaves have rested for 40 – 45 minutes, dust with more flour and put them in the oven to bake for 20 – 25 minutes.
When done they should feel very light for their size and sound hollow when tapped.
Transfer to a cooling rack and resist the temptation to eat until cool.