No bread? No meal!

I love Thursday mornings for several reasons. When the school is open and I am in Italy, Thursday morning is dedicated either to truffle hunts or trips to cheese factories and wine estates. If the school is not in session, time is on my side and I can wander around, stopping at the local markets where I normally get lost in food shopping. All kind of food, any type food! And time flies by. The screaming voice of the fish vendor makes me jump with a smile, reminding me that I have friends for dinner tonight and fish…is what they are coming for.  Tonight we decided to make fish and because I am also making a soup, I need bread, one of those nice dense peasant style bread with a tight crumb. There was not enough time for me or Alessio to make bread, hence…I will buy it. I will slice it, toast it and rub it with garlic. I will also  get some more for the table. Not the same kind though, maybe small baguettes, or mini loaves. Focaccia for sure, thinly sliced. Too many options! While crossing the street passing in front of the bakery, the intense fragrance of freshly baked bread captures me, clearly forcing me to go inside. Here the dilemma starts: what am I buying today? Never enter a bakery on an empty stomach. Under no circumstances! I always wake up with the best intentions but as usual, none of them make it to lunchtime. Today is different (don’t I always say this?) I will get the bread for soup and some for the bread basket for the table tonight and basta! Too late. A myriad of different shaped loaves, buns, mini panini, focaccia, breakfast pizza, bread sticks, rustic breads wink at me, making me even more confused. Gigantic brown wheels of sourdough country bread, probably weighing 10 lbs each are towering on top of the shelves, all lined up in nice baskets. For a minute I think: that’s what I want but a minute later my mind has completely changed and my eyes are now stuck on a Pugliese hard durum wheat bread. Carbs! My most dangerous addiction. My inner me would love a slice of everything but my conscience directs me towards more humble loaves of peasant style bread. This is what I finally got, with deep regrets obviously, and a bunch of different mini loaves for the joy of my bread basket. 

Italy is surely more well known for its many different types and shapes of pasta than for bread. France is what people have in mind when they think of bread not knowing that bread is a firm staple of the Mediterranean diet and therefore each Mediterranean country has fabulous, incredible bread recipes. I always smile when people ask me if it is really necessary to have so many pasta varieties. Isn’t pasta pasta, after all? I vote a big yes. Each shape has a reason to exist and create the perfect marriage with a sauce. Then of course I have to be professional and answer that it is a regional, traditional and historical thing and thanks to this, Italy has maintained its own culinary heritage pretty much intact. What most people ignore though, is that also bread comes in countless shapes and types. So many, too many! and my answer once again, is the same: it is a regional and traditional matter. And for the same reason: depending what you pair bread with, you need a specific type. Some like the flaky Pane Carasau from Sardinia or the moist, yellow semolina based Pane di Altamura from Apulia, some are more famous than others. Some are very flavorful, like the one from Genzano (Rome) or the Sicilian black bread from Castelvetrano and some, like Tuscan bread, unsalted and not at the top of the list if you are given a choice. No offense. Without bread, cured meats would be incomplete, bruschetta would not exist, Italian soups would miss their main ingredient, and crostini would be unknown. Not to mention that nobody would be able to make the scarpetta anymore. (basically cleaning the plate from the sauce with a piece of bread) Let’s be clear, without bread, there is no meal. Bread is part of many important recipes and it is often recycled in stuffings, breadcrumbs, croutons, salads and even desserts. Put simply, we do not waste bread, we save it. Oh! I almost forgot to add that bread, just like olive oil and salt, needs special care when handled, as the Italian superstition is very clear on this: never place it upside down or it will bring bad luck. Being a bread baker is hard work, but the satisfaction is immensely rewarding. Creating something from scratch, kneading it, shaping it, baking it and finally savoring it, has no price. The fragrance of bread has no competitors. The key to success is a great starter. You can make it or, if you are lucky to have a 60 yrs old starter that a generous baker handed to you, you are set! Baking is a fine art where sacrifice, patience and dedication are required. My son Alessio knows the store than well as he is the head baker at our cooking school. He refined this art with years and years of study and multiple tests. Mistakes and failures have been part of the process and they will still be. Flours are all different, oven temperatures vary from oven to oven; altitude, temperature and type of water are all factors that must be kept in mind when baking. Family recipes that have been passed from one generation to the next are in his wise hands. A legacy that has endured to this day. His vision is modern, tantalizing and very focused on the flours to be used. Organic flours, authentically sourced spices, ancient grains like Enkir/Einkorn (triticum monococcum) Farro (triticum dicoccum) and Khorasan (triticum turanicum aka Kamut) are the main interpreters of his recipes. Tradition combined with modern can finally coexist. Unlike centuries ago, the use of a brick oven is no longer necessary. Cast iron (Lodge) Dutch ovens are what he uses and success is guaranteed. There is something about bread that takes us to the heart of food. it is a ritual, a bond with flour and water that everyone from all over the world has created and experienced within their own culture. here may be no greater bond between people and bread alone.  Traditionally in Italy, no meal goes by without bread. We are happy to share a recipe for bread but more importantly, the recipe for the starter. Happy baking!

by Sandra Rosy Lotti/Recipes by Alessio J.M. Da Prato

Mothers come in different forms

Call it sourdough mother, mother of the yeast, biga, starter…”motherhood” comes in several different forms and with different names, but it refers to the same thing. Everything starts with flour and water or other liquid such as beer, grape juice or other fruit juice, taking advantage of the wild yeast naturally present in the fruit and the sugar on which the yeast feeds.

Once you choose a liquid, then choose a whole-grain flour (it contains yeasts and bacteria necessary to give the mother life.) Let the flour and water mixture sit for a day or so before discarding half of it and adding more flour and water. After a couple days, your starter will look bubbly and will smell yeasty. At this point (like a newborn baby), it will need care and devotion…or it will not live! The practice of making sourdough is as ancient as bread itself. For more than 5,000 years, humans have mixed flour and water together, waited for the mixture to ferment, and when it was sour and full of gas, used it as leavening to make bread. They found that they could save and multiply their leavening by saving a bit of unused dough to sow the seeds of foment in the next batch. Interested? Hope so.

Lynne and her bread basket

Follow these simple steps and then let me know!

  1. In a small bowl, combine 125 grams yogurt with 125 grams organic flour. Cover and leave at room temperature for 48 hours. 2. Add 125 grams water and 125 grams flour. Mix, cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
  2. Repeat step 2 every day for 15 days. You will end up with a large amount of starter. Share it with friends or just keep the amount small by discarding excess dough.
  3.  After 15 days, the starter is ready to be used in recipes or to be left at room temperature for 12 hours before refrigeration.

Refreshing and saving the starter
In order to keep the starter alive, it needs to be “fed” once a week. Using a scale, weigh the starter and transfer it to a bowl, then add 50% of the weight of the starter in water and combine until creamy. Weigh the same amount of the weight of the starter in flour and combine until a sticky dough forms. Combine, cover and rest at room temperature for 24 hours, then refrigerate for one week. The water is always 50% of the weight of the starter.

Sourdough Bread

Makes 2 large loaves

This sourdough bread is made with a special type of flour known as Buratto (type 2) which is a semi-whole wheat flour containing both germ and bran. The starter must be at least 15 days old in order to produce a flavorful and soft bread.

For the leaven

Preparation must start at least 8 to 12 hours prior to baking.

200 grams water at 82°F
50 grams starter
200 grams Mulino Marino white Buratto

flour or other Type 2 flour

  1. Using a small bowl and the tip of your fingers, dissolve starter in the water.
  2.  Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until homogenous. Cover with plastic wrap and rest for 8 to 12 hours at room temperature.

For the dough
700 grams water at 82°F
200 grams leaven
1 kg Buratto flour
25 grams fine sea salt, dissolved in 50 grams of water at 82°F

  1. Test leaven to make sure it is ready to use before making dough. Drop a small tablespoon of leaven into a bowl with lukewarm water. If it floats, it is ready to be used. If it sinks, it is not ready and needs more time to ferment. You can speed up the process by putting the leaven container in a warm place for 1 hour, then repeat the test.
  2. Pour water into a large mixing bowl. Add leaven and, using your hands, squeeze it to dissolve completely.
  3. Slowly add flour to the water/leavenblend; mix by hand until completely incorporated. No dry flour should be visible. Cover bowl with plastic wrap; let dough rest for 40 minutes. The resting period is important because it allows the proteins and the starch in the flour to absorb the water, then swell, and then relax into a cohesive mass.
  4. After the resting period, add the blend of water/salt to dough, squeezing it to incorporate the liquid. The dough is now beginning its first rise, called the bulk fermentation or bulk rise. This step is crucial and cannot be rushed; it is how the dough develops flavor and strength. Let dough rest for 4 hours at room temperature of 76°-85° F. During the first 2 hours, give the dough one turn every half hour. (To perform a turn, dip one hand in water to prevent the dough from sticking to it, then grab the underside of the dough, stretch it up, and fold it back over the dough.) After each turn, the dough will progressively go from dense and heavy to smooth, soft and aerated. The volume will increase by 20 to 30%.
  5.  After 4 hours, transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. With a bench scraper, cut dough into 2 or 4 equal pieces. Using a bench scraper and one hand, work each piece of dough into a round shape. Let dough rest on work surface for 30 minutes, covered with a kitchen towel.
  6. Lightly flour the top of the dough and flip it, then shape once again into a round ball. Using bench scraper, transfer each loaf into a proofing basket floured with either rice flour, corn meal, chick pea flour or semolina (the patina of the flour prevents the dough from sticking during the final rise). Let the dough rise for 3 to 4 hours at 75° to 85°F. If you don’t want
    to bake it right away, you can slow the process by placing dough in refrigerator for up to 16 hours, then bake right away. The cold temperature slows but does not stop the fermentation and gives dough a more complex and acidic flavor.


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