One of the great successes of British breadmaking in the last ten years has been the overwhelming acceptance of this Italian loaf! The dough and the method come from the north of Italy, around the city of Como at the edge of the great Alpine lake, though it has perhaps travelled further in mind and technological process than actual miles on the road. What appeals especially to the English is the cakey tenderness that comes from olive oil in the dough and the soft yet flavorous crust.
It is not an easy loaf to make at home. There are perhaps two things which set trade bakeries apart from home production. The first is the nature of the ovens, the second is the willingness and ability of the professional to handle moist and difficult doughs.
Ciabatta is one of the wettest and the temptation to add more flour is almost irresistible, even though that would change the nature of the loaf itself. The dough is kneaded in the bowl rather than on the table, which helps combat the temptation. It is unfortunate that different flours need different amounts of water. No recipe, therefore, can get it exactly right. Another temptation for the home cook is to disbelieve the cookery book.
The flour I use every day is a stoneground organic unbleached white flour of breadmaking quality. It absorbs less water than a finely roller-milled North American hard spring wheat, but rather more than a soft flour suitable for general kitchen purposes.
A ciabatta made according to this recipe may have better flavour than a commercial loaf inasmuch as it uses the Italian yeasted starter, biga, which is ripened for 12 hours or more, to add flavour.
You can also control the quality of olive oil in the dough, trying to find something fresh and fruity to give that added pungency, though this recipe does not rely on oil to the extent of some English interpretations.
© 2005 Tom Jaine. All rights reserved.