So the stew is bubbling away in the slow cooker and then the next step is to pop a loaf into the bread machine to serve with it. Ciabatta is probably one of the hottest Italian-style country breads made in this country today in artisan bakeries. It is a bit more complex than the completely-made-in-the-machine bread, since it is baked off in the oven to get its great shape, but if you love good bread, you will love this recipe. For good reason; it has a superb crust and flavor. The word ciabatta describes the look of the loaf, like a flat slipper or old shoe, hence the regional nickname, “slipper bread” around Lake Como. This dough is perfect for the bread machine because it is so wet that it can’t be mixed with your hands, so don’t be tempted to add more flour, and the mechanical kneading time is about 23 minutes, which is perfect. It has a lievito naturale, or starter, that is firm like a bread dough and rests overnight, so plan for a two-day process before shaping by hand and baking in your home oven. Make the starter at night, then mix the dough in the morning, refrigerate the dough until late afternoon, and bake the bread by dinner. Half of this recipe also makes a dozen long grissini, which are nice for appetizers. Divide the recipe into 8 portions and make ciabattini, or sandwich rolls. This formula is an adaptation from one by P.J. Hamel of the King Arthur Flour test kitchen that is in Beth’s The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook. When this loaf comes out of the oven, we always think it is magic!
Makes 2 large loaves
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups plus 3 to 4 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon bread machine yeast
All of the Starter
7/8 cup warm water
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons olive oil or canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast
2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Make the biga: Place the water, 1 1/4 cups of the flour, and yeast for the starter in the bread pan. Program for the Dough cycle. After about 5 minutes, scrape down the sides and slowly add another 1/4 cup of flour. When the kneading cycle ends, remove the small ball of dough from the machine and place the dough on a work surface. Hand knead in about 3 tablespoons more flour. You will have a smooth dough ball firmer and a bit drier than one for bread, stiff yet resilient at the same time. Return the dough to the bread pan and close the lid (you could press Pause, but I just leave the lid open. This takes all of about 30 seconds).
When the cycle ends, unplug the machine and let the starter sit in the bread machine for 9 to 12 hours, or overnight. The dough will rise and fall back upon itself, become moist, and smell yeasty. If you can’t make the dough right away, store the biga in a Ziploc plastic baggie in the refrigerator up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before making the dough, or warm it in the microwave for 10 seconds, before breaking up the pieces.
Make the dough: With your fingers, tear the slightly sticky starter into walnut size pieces and leave in the machine. Place the water, milk, oil, and yeast in the bread pan with the biga pieces. Add 1 1/2 cups of the bread flour and the salt. Program for the Dough cycle; press Start. At the start of the Knead 2 cycle, add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour. The dough will be very wet and sticky like a savarin batter. Don’t add any more flour, just leave the dough alone except for scraping the sides into the center. The dough will end up elastic and shiny, but relaxed and slack; sticking on the sides of the pan, If you tried to mix it by hand, you couldn’t knead it on a work surface.
At the beep, after the rising cycle ends, the dough will have almost filled the pan. The top will be smooth, but if you stick your finger in, it will be sticky. Spray a deep 6-quart plastic bucket with olive oil vegetable cooking spray or brush with oil. .Scrape the risen dough into the container, give the top a light spray of oil, cover, and refrigerate 6 hours to overnight, but no longer than 24 hours. This long, cool rise is important for the slow fermentation and the flavor of the finished ciabatta, so don’t skip it.
Line a large, heavy baking sheet with parchment paper (some bakers use aluminum foil) and sprinkle heavily with flour. Turn the chilled dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, sprinkle lots of flour on top, and pat into a long rectangle about 5 inches wide. Divide into 2 equal rectangles across the middle and place each portion on the baking sheet. Cover with a clean tea towel and let rest at room temperature 20 minutes to relax the dough.
Dust the tops with some flour. Using the flat section of your fingers below the fingertips and holding them in an open splayed position, press, push, and stretch the dough, making a rectangle about 10-x-5-inches (the width of your hand). Your fingers will not press in some areas, so you will have a dimpling, flattening effect, which will end up producing the characteristic uneven texture in the baked loaf. Cover again and let rest at room temperature until triple in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. The loaves will stay flattish looking. Don’t worry, they will rise dramatically in the oven.
Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425º with a baking stone on the lower third oven rack.
Spray or sprinkle the loaf with some water and place the baking sheet directly on the hot stone. You can slip the parchment off the baking sheet and bake directly on the stone, if you like. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Prop open the oven door about 5 inches and let the ciabatta cool in the oven at least 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve. Wrap in plastic to store.
Excerpted from The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2002, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.