I've been having conflicted feelings about the direction of my blogging lately. It started back in December, when I began listening to the excellent Great Courses lecture series on medieval philosophy. I have always liked to learn about and discuss aspects of philosophy and theology, but when I began to be so completely immersed in studying it, I realized that I had a bit more than a casual interest in it.
I found myself delving into primary texts, taking the conclusions far beyond their contexts and studying and thinking about their implications, delighting in where I could make sense and going further when I couldn't. I've also been in some verbal and online debates about it, and that led me to the conclusion that I really did love to write about it. I relished in the challenge of putting my argument into the correct dialectic, of being clear and concise and engaging. I loved hearing other people's points of view and learning more because of it. I gleefully anticipated when I would next get to participate in a debate and thought about my answers and viewpoints for ages and ages.
And in the midst of this, writing about cooking seemed almost... anticlimactic. I began thinking about how I could get the opportunity to write more about philosophy, to think more, to challenge myself further. Cooking stopped seeming like the fascinating and soul-feeding topic that it once was.
I started seriously considering starting another blog where I tackled more weighty subjects and engaged with a different audience. I even began brainstorming titles and publicity. But then, something like this came along, something so fun and satisfying that I fell in love all over again and remembered what had drawn me to this in the first place.
That something, of course, was my ciabatta bread. I have had great trouble in the past when I attempted to make this crusty, chewy Italian bread with those characteristic huge air bubbles. Due to bad instructions in my bread book as well as some technique issues and hasty prep, I have never before pulled anything remotely assembling a blog-worthy ciabatta.
But, mostly due to a lucky coincidence, I've discovered the perfect way to make a starter dough as well as some other tips and tricks to streamline the process. You may remember, if you've been reading my posts, that I just conducted an experiment where I tried to catch wild yeast. The experiment itself wasn't as successful as I had hoped, but I did discover a secret to long-fermentation doughs on the way.
The problem I'd always had was that I followed the instructions in the cookbook and prepared a starter dough that was pretty much a normal bread dough in water-to-flour ratio and consistency, and it simply didn't blend into the second wave of ingredients properly or easily. I discovered the solution to this when I used a very watery starter dough that had worked as a control in my experiment in a recipe that called for fermented dough. Instead of the messy, dense bread I had become used to, I had a chewy, textured loaf with tons of air bubbles and a professional taste. What satisfaction!
My discovery came at just the right time to point me back in this direction. My other ideas will sit on the back burner, and maybe I'll act on them at a different point in my life; but for now, this is just where I want to be. And that is something I can be certain of.
For the starter:
2 cups/8 oz flour (I used half Italian-style and half whole wheat)
1 cup warm water
1 tsp instant yeast
For the dough:
3 cups/12 oz. flour (see above)
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp instant yeast
1 cup warm water
3 tbsp olive oil
1. For the starter: Mix the flour and yeast in a large bowl. Add the water and mix again; you should end up with a mixture that is extremely wet. The consistency almost reminded me of pudding. Cover and leave for at least 12 and up to 36 hours (refrigerate after 12 hours of fermentation).
2. When your starter has gone long enough, uncover it. There should be at the very least tons of small bubbles in it; if you've left it for longer, they'll be much bigger and the dough will be much more than doubled in volume.
3. Measure the flour, yeast, and salt into a medium bowl and stir until combined. Then, punch down the starter dough with a spoon and add a big spoonful of the flour mix (see above) and a splash of water and olive oil. Keep adding them, little by little, until everything is combined. You will mix until your arm feels ready to fall off, but it's so worth it in the end. After you finish, you should have a very wet dough that's impossible to knead.
4. Cover and leave the dough to rise for about two hours or until doubled in size. Without punching down, scrape it onto a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with flour and pat into a large oblong shape. Put the oven on preheat to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Leave the dough to rise (uncovered is fine) for another 30 minutes.
5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown and sounding hollow on the bottom when tapped. Cool on a wire rack and enjoy. Makes 1 large loaf.
Notes: I could write another three paragraphs about all the intricacies, but since the post is long already I will cut to the chase and put them here. I used a combination of some Italian-style white flour and whole wheat flour to make my loaf. You can make this with all white flour, but I wouldn't suggest all whole wheat. It will make it harder to get a good rise and consistency. My original recipe suggested a combination of water and milk for the liquid, but I didn't find this strictly necessary. Also, I doubt that your first try will be perfect--mine was a disaster! This is something you may really have to work at, but I'm convinced that it's worth it in the end. And of course, all your disasters will still taste good. It's home-baked bread, after all.