Ciabatta On A Snowy Day

In this week’s Q&A Karen asked me if I had any goal cooking projects this year, and the immediate thought that came to mind was making ciabatta. I have made several kinds of bread, but ciabatta is a favorite of mine and I have always wanted to try making it. I didn’t necessarily expect to achieve that goal so early in the year!

As they say, sometimes the perfect storm comes together and in this case it was literal! We were under a snow warning for last weekend and ahead of the storm they upgraded it to a blizzard warning. Ciabatta takes quite a bit of time to make as it calls for a starter and since it appeared as if we’d be locked inside for a day or two, I thought it would be the perfect time to give it a try!

There are many recipes for ciabatta out there, but I had been eyeing this one for Rustic Italian Ciabatta from King Arthur Baking company for quite awhile as the process seemed a bit more simplified and easier to follow than other recipes I had seen in the past.

The type of starter used in ciabatta is called biga which is a fairly wet, but simple mix of flour, water and a little yeast. The biga requires a long and slow rise over a 12 to 16 hour period in order to fully develop. I mentioned in my Q&A answer that I did try once many years ago to make ciabatta. That one and only attempt ended in failure as I awoke to find that my yeast was clearly too old, which resulted in my biga being an unrisen soupy mess! That’s all it takes to bring an attempt at making this bread to an abrupt end!

I started my biga at 7 pm (right when the blizzard warning kicked in) so it would be ready early the next day for me to start the second part of the dough – or at least I was hoping that would be the case! Surely the same thing wouldn’t happen again after all of these years of walking away from my first attempt, right? I’m happy to report the answer is no! I woke to wild snow whipping around with about 8 inches already on the ground and also to a biga that had risen and was light and bubbly, as it should be!

With the fear of another possible failed attempt behind me, I was ready to move on to the next part of the process. The main dough is very similar to the biga, with the addition of salt and a larger amount of yeast, and of course, the biga! The dough came together very nicely with the use of the dough hook on our mixer.

After two rises, the dough was ready to be formed into loaves. I was most concerned about that part of the process because ciabatta dough is very hydrated and I had not worked with such a wet and sticky dough before. I followed the simple instructions carefully and was surprised at how quickly and easily they came together. The gallery below shows the journey from fully risen dough to fully risen, oven ready loaves.

It was time to bake the loaves. The recipe calls for them to be baked in a steamy environment which helps promote the best rise and crust. You can achieve this to some degree by simply spritzing the dough with water, but for the best results they recommend a full steam environment. This requires placing some type of pan in the oven while it preheats and then when placing the bread in the oven, pouring boiling water into the hot pan and quickly closing the door to trap the steam.

This was another first for me, but I know that Karen spent quite a bit of time last year elevating her bread making skills into something of an art form, so I reached out to her for a bit of advice. King Arthur recommended using a cast iron frying pan for the steam bath, but I only have enameled cast iron Dutch ovens and they wouldn’t work for what I needed to do.

Karen told me that the bottom of a broiler pan would do the trick and she also warned me to use something with a long spout when adding the water because the initial burst of steam is pretty dramatic. She wasn’t kidding – thanks to her warning, I successfully added the water without getting burned from the steam!

The bread was delicious – crusty on the outside and chewy inside. It reminded me very much of a ciabatta that my mother and I used to pick up from a local bakery back when I was in college. They only made it on the weekends because of the amount of time it took to make. We would sit in the kitchen, talk, have coffee and eat way too much of it!

I no longer live close to that bakery, and unfortunately my mom has been gone for almost 16 years now. I still miss those simple moments of visiting with her over a cup of coffee and a slice (or two, or three, or four….) of that delicious ciabatta. I am always so thankful for the many happy memories that came from those days – they bring a smile to my face and a bit of extra warmth to my home when I share them with my wife and son.

The bread is long gone and the snow is melting, but the sense of accomplishment lives on and now I know that making ciabatta is not an unrealistic or impossible task. It’s only the start of February – I’d better start contemplating a new cooking goal for the year! Until next time, I hope you all have a great weekend!

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