If you follow me on Instagram chances are you’ve seen the heavy bread-making posts lately. Much of the extra time I’ve had on my days off has been dedicated to preparing starter dough (you really only need to do this once), kneading…and waiting. Lots of waiting for a first, second and even a third rise. My husband doesn’t quite understand all the trouble I’ve been going through to prepare one loaf of bread when he thinks buying one would be so much easier (never mind that he is very particular about and is loyal to one brand for his thrice weekly French baguette supply). When that all-day loaf finally does come out of the oven though, he’s always the first in line.
Yes, baking your own bread is rather involved. Even with the no-knead method there’s required wait time before you can enjoy that first bite with butter and jam or a slice of cheese. In this version, the biga (starter dough) must ferment 24 hours in the refrigerator before it can be used. After this preliminary step, the kneaded dough must rise a few times (totaling about 3 hours) before baking the loaf for about 40 minutes. So, yes, if time is a premium, running to the store is the way to go.
But then I’d miss out on the fun of trying to remove the sticky dough from my fingers, I’d miss the therapeutic benefits from the kneading process and I wouldn’t be rewarded with seeing the flour, yeast and water come together into a smooth, cohesive ball. And how about the magic that happens under the dish towel during the 1 1/2 hour wait? There’s nothing quite like seeing the transformation of a handful of simple ingredients into a beautiful, tasty golden brown loaf.
I’ve been working with homemade bread for a few years now and each experience always makes the Suzy Homemaker in me smile. When the loaf crackles as it cools on the wire rack, I know I’ve done something right. This loaf I baked recently is Il Fornaio’s recipe for Panmarino (rosemary bread, one of my favorites at the restaurant). Fragrant from the fresh rosemary with a crisp crust that is just slightly salty from the coarse sea salt sprinkled on it before baking, it’s hard not to be tempted to make a meal out of the entire loaf with a simple dip like this Salsa di Parmigiano and a glass of wine. I’ve been experimenting with several of the restaurant’s bread recipes (see my experience with Italian baguette in the last image below); it’s a good thing the recipe for starter dough is good for quite a lot of bread. One batch of biga will make several loaves. It will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks but after that the starter can be frozen in smaller portions for later use. I’ve frozen a few bags of 1/4-cup portions of starter dough so I’m set for next time. What will be the next experiment? Panettone? Pane alle Patate? Pane alle Noci? I have a feeling that no matter what recipe I try next I’ll be smiling once I hear the crackling of the bread as it comes out of the oven.
* I created two separate printable recipe pages here so the starter dough can be printed on its own.
- ***Recipe for Biga (Starter Dough)
- ¾ teaspoon active dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water (105°F)
- 3½ cups unbleached bread flour (I used all-purpose)
- 1¼ cups cool water
- Dissolve the yeast in warm water in a small bowl. Set aside for about 15 minutes, until creamy.
- Measure the flour into a large bowl, create a well in the center and add the yeast mixture and cool water. Use a wooden spoon to stir all the ingredients together until the mixture is sticky and it's too difficult to stir with the spoon.
- Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to ferment in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- You may store this starter dough in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. To use, scoop up the amount of starter you need and bring to room temperature.
- ***Panmarino (Rosemary Bread) Recipe
- ¾ teaspoon active dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water (105°F)
- 2¾ cups unbleached bread flour (I used all-purpose)
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup cool water
- ¼ cup biga (starter dough), see recipe above
- Additional flour for work surface
- 2 teaspoons roughly-chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 tablespoons milk
- Olive oil for bowl
- Cornmeal for baker's peel
- Coarse sea salt
- Dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a small bowl. Set aside for 15 minutes.
- Measure the flour into a large bowl; form a well in the center then add the yeast mixture, cool water, and starter dough. Stir together with a wooden spoon until too resistant to be stirred.
- Knead the dough briefly in the bowl then turn out on a lightly-floured work surface.
- Knead vigorously for 20 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Include some 1- to 2-minute rest periods along the way. (Whenever I found the dough a little too sticky, I dipped the heels of my hands in flour before proceeding.)
- Return the dough to the bowl and add the rosemary and milk. Gently knead them into the dough until they are completely incorporated. (Don't worry if the dough falls apart because of too much liquid. This is what happened to me and I'm glad I didn't give up on the recipe. It will work, promise!) Shape the dough into a ball as much as you can.
- Rub another large bowl with olive oil and place the dough inside it. Cover it with a dish towel and let rise at room temperature until it doubles in size, about 1½ hours. After this time, punch the down the dough by folding the edges into the center. Cover and let rise a second time until doubled, about 45 minutes.
- Form the dough into a football-shaped loaf. Cover the loaf with a towel and let rise at room temperature for about 50 minutes. (For this rise, I set the dough on my pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal). The dough is ready when it springs back gently when lightly pressed with your finger. While you wait, place a baking stone in your oven and preheat to 425°F.
- Mist the preheated oven with a spray bottle and quickly shut the oven door. Using a sharp serrated knife, make one slash about ½-inch deep along the length of the loaf. Sprinkle some coarse sea salt into the slash.
- Slide the loaf onto the baking stone and mist the oven again. Bake the loaf until it's golden brown on top, dark brown on the bottom and sounds hollow when you tap it, about 40-50 minutes (it took a little less time in my oven). Cool completely before slicing.