Some time ago, I presented streamlined yeast-bread and pizza-dough procedures that made the seemingly daunting task of bread-making so quick and easy that you could procrastinate until almost 6 p.m. and still have bread on the table for dinner at 7.
Today, inspired by friends on our Food Lovers' Discussion Group who dug up one of my old recipes for an Italian country bread called pane casalinga, let's examine a related proposition: Bread made by a long, slow process that can extend over 24 hours or more is still easy ... and it can be even more delicious.
This procedure does require some advance planning - it's best to start the night before baking to build the "biga," a simple Italian bread leavening that's sort of a quick, not-so-sour alternative to sourdough starter. But that only takes a minute, and just about all the time thereafter is spent waiting for the biga to develop and then for the dough to rise.
In exchange for this time commitment, you earn something wonderful: Yeast that is not rushed has time to develop delicious, subtle and complex flavors and texture in the loaf that you simply can't get when you rush the process. (And that, by the way, is the tradeoff that occurs when you make the quick one-hour yeast breads I mentioned ... for links to those recipes, see below.)
Here's the procedure for pane casalinga ("Pah-nay Kah-sah-lin-gah") which sounds a lot more politically correct than its literal translation, "Housewife's bread," implying a rustic homemade country loaf. My notes indicate that it is evolved from an original recipe in Michele Scicolone's cookbook, "A Fresh Taste of Italy." The procedure may look long and complicated, but if you follow it carefully step by step, you'll find that it's not terribly challenging, and the results are definitely worth the effort.
INGREDIENTS: (Makes two dinner-size loaves or one large one)
1 cup (240 ml) warm water
1. MAKE THE BIGA: Unlike sourdough, biga is not a wild-yeast starter that develops over weeks and months but a simple mix of flour and commercial yeast. You can make it just a few hours in advance, but it's best if you give it a full 24 hours to develop. Put 1 cup warm but not hot water (about 110F or 45C if you care to measure it) in a large bowl, and sprinkle the package of dry yeast over it; stir with a fork and set aside until it bubbles a little. Stir in 1 cup of the bread flour until it's mostly dissolved (don't worry about lumps). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside at cool room temperature for 1 to 24 hours (see above). It will rise up some and become thick and bubbly. At this point, if your plans change, you can keep the biga in the refrigerator for another day or two before using; give it time to come back to room temperature before you use it.
2. MAKE THE DOUGH: Mix together the remaining 2 1/2 cups bread flour and the whole wheat flour. (You can use all white flour if you prefer, adding another 1/2 cup to substitute for the whole wheat, but the small amount of darker flour - whole wheat or even rye - will make a more interesting and complex bread.) Put the flours and the salt into the bowl of your food processor, and blend for a second or two with the steel blade. Then scrape in all the starter and start to process, pouring in the additional warm water through the feed tube very slowly, a little at a time, taking care not to use too much. You want the dough just wet enough to form a sticky ball that rides up on the blades. Continue processing for 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. (If you don't have a food processor or don't want to use it, you can make the dough in a stand mixer or by hand the old-fashioned way, but the processor method is quick and easy.) When the dough is finished, turn it onto a floured board or counter top, knead it into a smooth, round ball - it should not require extended kneading, as the processor has done this job for you. Put the dough ball into a large bowl lightly coated with olive oil; cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place (I use the inside of the non-preheated gas oven, warmed by the pilot light) until it is tripled in volume - 2 hours or more.
3. MAKE THE LOAVES: When the dough has risen fully, punch it down and turn it onto a floured board. Pat it out to eliminate any remaining bubbles, cut it in half, and form each portion into a rough long or round loaf. (If you prefer, simply shape the whole thing into a larger single loaf.) Sprinkle a large baking sheet with a little cornmeal, place the loaves on the cornmeal, and set aside under a towel to rise for about 45 minutes or until they're doubled in size. (If you prefer to use a baking stone, use a pizza peel or bread board sprinkled with cornmeal instead of the baking sheet, so you can easily slide the loaves into the oven when they're ready.)
4. BAKE THE BREAD: While the loaves are rising, preheat the oven to 450F (225C). You'll bake on the middle rack, and if you want to use a pizza or baking stone, put it there while the oven preheats. Put a heavy roasting pan or loaf pan on the bottom rack. When the loaves have risen and the oven has come up to baking temperature, make a couple of diagonal gashes across the loaves with a sharp knife. Put the baking sheet on the middle rack (or if you're using the hot stone, carefully slide them from the board onto the stone). Then very carefully pour 2 cups of hot water into the pan on the bottom rack, watching out for a possible burst of scalding steam. Bake the loaves for 30 to 40 minutes or until the tops are well browned and the loaves make a hollow sound when you tap them on the bottoms. Serve hot, warm or cool, but if you plan to slice the bread, it's best to let it cool before cutting.
WINE MATCH: As much as I enjoy wine, when we serve hot bread (and plenty of it) as a light meal with a simple soup and salad, I often forgo the wine, although it occurs to me that a crisp sparkler like an Italian Prosecco might make a nice match with steaming fresh bread and lots of butter. If the bread is served alongside a meal, then you'll want to choose a wine to match the main course.
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