Peter Reinhart’s Italian Bread

Happy 2012!

I woke up this morning with the intention of making a delicious new scones recipe to share with you to start off the new year. While my New Year certainly started out deliciously, the recipe didn’t turn out how it should – my scones were ugly and messy, and the recipe needs some adjustment. Since I want to try the recipe again to give you good directions when I review it, I’ll share with you the Italian bread I made to go with our traditional Christmas dinner of lasagna.

Last Christmas, I made the French Bread from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. It was delicious, but I find baguettes beg to accompany soup, rather than be made into little rounds of garlic bread, as Christmas dinner bread is fated to become. Generally, Italian bread is a little softer than French bread is. (That said, we bought some “French bread” last year that was as soft as the inside of sandwich bread. The store-bought stuff couldn’t compare to what I made!) The recipe for French bread only called for flour, yeast, salt, and water; Italian bread as made here also includes a little sugar and olive oil.

You must start this bread the day before you want to bake it. Making this bread spans two days because you use a pre-ferment, which are awesome because they develop great flavor to add to your bread. A lot of the recipes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice use pre-ferments. For Italian bread (and in Italy, Reinhart says), these pre-ferments are called biga.

I’ve written out the recipe as I made it, but Deb at Smitten Kitchen has more complete instructions, including timing for the stand mixer, and certainly has better pictures than I do, too.

I used bread flour for this because it has more protein and develops more gluten, resulting in a chewier loaf. You can use all-purpose flour instead. While I’m in my own kitchen I usually make bread dough using my KitchenAid, but at my parents’ house I make bread the old fashioned way – kneading by hand.

Italian Bread (adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice)

Biga
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons to 1 cup water, at room temperature

Mix together flour and yeast, and add water. Add more water or flour if needed to make a dough that’s neither too stiff nor too sticky. Once the dough comes together, knead on a lightly floured surface for about 6 minutes, until the dough is soft and pliable. The dough should be tacky – it wants to hold on to your finger, but doesn’t really leave any dough behind, if that makes any sense.

Put dough in a lightly oiled bowl, coat dough with oil, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for 2-4 hours, until doubled in size. Degas the dough, return it to the bowl, and refrigerate overnight.

3 1/2 cups biga
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 2/3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon yeast
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup to 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water

Remove the biga from the refrigerator 1 hour before making the dough. Cut it into about 10 pieces and cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to take off the chill.

Mix together dry ingredients. Add biga, olive oil, and 3/4 cup water, and mix until a ball forms. Add additional flour or water as necessary. Dough should be slightly sticky and soft, but it’s better for it to be too wet than too stiff because it will absorb additional flour as you knead.

Place dough on floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary, until dough is tacky and soft, but not sticky. The dough should pass the windowpane test. Place in an oiled bowl, coat with oil, and cover with plastic wrap. Ferment at room temperature for about 2 hours or until dough doubles in size. If your kitchen is anything like mine or my mom’s, you may need to put your dough in a warmer place.

Gently divide the dough in half, deflating the dough as little as possible. (That said, I degassed my dough a lot, and it didn’t harm it at all.) Shape the dough into batards, which are torpedoes or shortened baguettes. Gently pat dough into a rectangle. Without degassing the dough, fold the bottom third of dough, letter style, up to the center and press to seal, creasing surface tension on the outer edge. Fold remaining dough down over the top and use the edge of your hand to seal the seam closed and to increase the surface tension all over.

Let the dough rest for 5 minutes to let the gluten recover, and then stretch the loaves out to about 12 inches in length. You’re supposed to put the dough on a baking sheet dusted with flour or cornmeal, but I just put the dough directly on the baking sheet. Coat the loaves with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let proof for about an hour, or until loaves have grown to about 1 1/2 times their original size.

Preheat oven to 500F and place an empty pan on the bottom rack of the oven (so you can pour water into it later to make steam). Score the bread – I tried a single long slash, but I didn’t really go deep enough, unfortunately.

I baked my loaves directly on the sheet. I didn’t have a spray bottle, so I sprinkled water on the loaves, which made the crust blister a little but didn’t hurt the bread. I put the loaves in the oven on the middle rack, and poured hot water into the hot, empty pan on the bottom rack. I lowered the temperature to 450F and baked the bread for about 20 minutes, rotating the loaves once. At 20 minutes, the bread was golden brown and done! I didn’t cut the bread until the next day when we made garlic bread.

Loaves of Italian Bread

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the interior of the bread. Let me tell you that the bread was definitely delicious. The bread was soft and chewy on the inside. I’m glad I used bread flour instead of all-purpose because it made the bread chewier. The crust itself wasn’t too tough or crusty before we made it into garlic bread. I enjoyed this bread for this purpose much more than I enjoyed last year’s French bread.

Honestly, this is a bread that just makes you want to eat bread all the time. You simply don’t find bread like this in the grocery store. It takes some time, but the results are definitely worth it.

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