There is something to be said for people who rush to your aid even though they have never met you in person. A few weeks back, I had been attempting (and failing, in various and really disgusting ways) to make a successful sourdough starter. By the second or third attempt, I was convinced the entire thing wasn’t for me. What was I doing wrong here? Bread starters are supposed to smell all luscious and warm hearthy; mine smelled like I poured beer over some yellow cake and abandoned it in the sink for a few weeks. I’m not going to lie; I may have cried a little bit. Because here I thought I had gotten over the yeast part of things (where nothing ever rose correctly), but now it seemed as though the universe was telling me that the gates were locked on anything sourdough-related.
But I love sourdough breads the best.
So I did what every one of us does when we’re in misery, and we feel alone, we don’t know who else to turn to: I posted a cry for help on Facebook. I thought at least I could verbalize my frustration and that would make me feel better, even if no on answered.
But so many of you answered. And like lightning, I might add; so fast that I went on to do something else for a bit and came back shortly thereafter and there was an entire discussion going on between people I’m not even sure know each other regarding sourdough starters. There was concern expressed over my use of milk and flour (I’m sorry, friends; I knew not what I was doing, and that recipe I was using was totally bogus, you’re right), suggestions for other friends to tell me what they used, and exact recipes and helpful guides set forth for me by all of you. One of you even named my starter. You not only suggested I name it, because naming sourdough starters is evidently a must, but you even helped me come up with one (Remy! I still love that name. Thanks, Jennifer B!)
My point: we may not all get to gather ’round the fire anymore like we did a hundred years ago, because our worlds are all so much larger than before, but let no one ever tell you that real friendships and love can’t stretch across the bounds of the internet. Because it can, and I see it every day, and it’s in dumb things like taking a minute to help someone with their stupid, failing bread starter. The internet isn’t as cold a place as it seems, at least not always, because all I saw that day in my mind was a bunch of people shuffling up my porch in their hoop skirts, fluttering about in my kitchen trying to make sure I got it right. No one was leaving until I produced something successful; it was like making sure the weakest of the herd didn’t fall behind. We were a team. And it was so, so great. Thank you.
That right there is the coolest thing about blogging: this community is so willing and ready and able to help you it’s like there are thousands of people manning some invisible phone bank waiting, and wanting, to help you out. In August, I’ll have been blogging for two years, and in that time, I’ve been handed some pretty amazing opportunities because of the randomness which happens here. However, I think what keeps me going than most is the unending encouragement and support I get from the food community, on all levels. It keeps me in love with blogging, and that’s important.
For the ladies in their virtual hoop skirts who showed up on my porch the other day, this one is for you. The starter worked! I guess I’m not sure how to gauge the success of a bread starter, but it smells great, made a lovely dough for this, and the end result was incredibly delicious. I even looked up how to care for my new starter while I was on vacation, and I’m excited to get back to it. This ciabatta recipe was the short-term reason I wanted to make a starter, but obviously I’ll be moving on to other things with it, since this turned out so well. I realize that not all ciabatta involves a sourdough component, but my favorite ones do.
I am no bread expert (obviously), but like the cherry focaccia, if I can do this, you can too. Maybe you have a bread starter already, which is great because you can get to baking this right away. The quicker the better, because this was a lovely, easy recipe, and it makes a huge amount. I shaped mine into two large loaves, but you could easily make smaller ones if that seems more practical to you.
I’m actually going to use it in a favorite breakfast sandwich of mine; a newish one from Panera Bread that I’m in love with. I figured out the copycat, and that will be coming up in a few days. Because of that, I made it in the style of their own ciabatta, which has a sourdough base and a softer crust than you typically see on ciabatta, and I can only assume this is because they don’t do the water spritz thing just prior to baking. I like it this way – pillowy – simply because it seems more useful for sandwiches.
Ciabatta recipe adapted from Williams Sonoma Essentials of Baking: Tips and Tricks for Successful Home Baking by Cathy Burgett.
Ciabatta (in the style of Panera Bread)
for the overnight sponge:
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup whole milk, heated to warm (105˚-115˚F)
- 1 1/4 cups cool water
- 1 cup sourdough starter*
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (Bob’s Red Mill is my favorite for breads)
for the dough:
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (again, Bob’s Red Mill is pretty awesome) + 1 cup more for additions (you won’t need that much, but it’s nice to have on hand)
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 cup cornmeal
- 2/3 cup (or so) all-purpose flour for the work surface
*so, as you read above, this is my first time making a successful sourdough starter, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I tried one from this very book, actually, and it was weird and terrible. I asked for help on Facebook, and Facebook swept me up in its wings. So many lovely people responded, all of whom know way more about bread than I do, and they directed me to this starter recipe: it worked beautifully, and I have yet to kill it. Which is amazing. If you have your own starter, obviously use it here. If you don’t, this one comes highly recommended, by me and by a swarm of others. So make your starter and let it…er…start, and away we go.
Make the sponge:
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast into the warm milk and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the water, sourdough starter of your choosing, and bread flour, mixing until everything is homogenous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
Make the ciabatta:
Remove the plastic wrap from your sponge and transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment (or, alternatively, do this by hand if you have a specific way you normally make bread). Add the flour, salt, and oil; knead on low speed until soft and springy, about 7 minutes. See my note below on adding additional flour, and remember to scrape the bowl down periodically with a plastic scraper.
Note: I watched this the entire time, and needed to add a little bit more flour as it went; it shouldn’t clean the sides of the bowl, necessarily, but it should come off of it a little bit and smooth out. I added 1/2 cup more as it was kneading, and felt like that was perfect. You add more or less as you see fit, but don’t make it too dry. Aim for “not sticky oozy glob.”
Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and give it one more scrape-down to catch the sides. Use your hands to incorporate any side leftovers, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Place in a warm spot in your kitchen and let rise for about 3 hours; it should double in bulk. Alternatively, you can place the bowl in the fridge overnight, which is what I did, and it turned out beautifully. The chill on it makes it easier to work when you shape the loaves, so you pick. I think if you’ve done ciabatta before, you’re prepared for how soft and sticky it is. If you haven’t, I would recommend the refrigerator/overnight method first.
When your dough is ready, sprinkle two half-sheet pans generously with cornmeal.
Cover your work surface with that heap of flour (2/3 cup) and use your pastry scraper to turn the dough out of the bowl onto the prepared surface. Cut the dough into two equal pieces with a large, sharp knife.
Sprinkle a little more flour over top your two dough halves while you gently shape each piece outward into long, flat rectangles, about 6 inches by 16-18 inches in total size. Carefully pick up each loaf by weaving it over your hands and transfer it to the center of the prepared pan.
Cover the loaves loosely with two clean kitchen towels (1 each) and leave them to rise in a warm place in your kitchen until soft and puffy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
When ready to bake, place your oven racks in the middle and lower third of your oven, and preheat to 450˚F.
Place your bread into oven gently, and bake until they are lightly browned and sound hollow when tapped, about 18-20 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely before serving. That part, yes, will be difficult.
Makes two really big loaves; ones which you could use for slicing and serving as an appetizer with flavored olive oil, toasting for crostini or bruschetta, or making breakfast sandwiches much like the mediterranean egg sandwich coming up next.