Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Classic Italian Bread (Filoncino)

The first time I remember trying real Italian bread, I was 12 years old, and visiting my cousins in Munich for the first time.  I had been raised on Old Fashioned White Bread.  Always a health nut, I actually preferred whole wheat bread, which was the healthiest option I knew existed at the time.  But it was pretty hard to come by in rural Georgia.  And that was, of course, the soft, sliced, processed stuff in the plastic bag.

I liked peanut butter and banana between two slices of soft sandwich bread.  I liked grilled sandwiches with melting cheese oozing out of a fragile, buttery crust.  And I still do.

My cousins, on the other hand, found their bread hanging in a basket on their door every morning.  Their bread was an assortment of hard, crusty rolls, some square and some oblong, some seeded and some with fruit.

I remember clearly my first bite.  I couldn’t even break through my chorizo and cheese breakfast sandwich with my teeth!  It was so tough!  How and why did Germans eat this stuff?  Where was the soft bread?  I tried several rolls, in search of something soft.   By the end of my visit, I’d realized a few things about Europe in general.

One, I wouldn’t find soft bread.  They didn’t eat it.  Two, I wouldn’t find any Prego-like spaghetti sauces in Tuscany.  And three, I could give up on ice cubes, too.

At 12, these were problems, only because I was using what I’d known all my life as the standard for “ideal.”  But that’s what 12-year-olds, or people who have never been exposed to anything new or different, do.

Now, I rarely use ice because my ice-maker is a piece of crap.  I enjoy chopped tomatoes and basil with my pasta as much as I enjoy a rich sauce.  And as for bread, I think to compare Old Fashioned White Bread with a French baguette is to compare an apple with an orange.  So enough comparing.

On to European bread.  Specifically, filoncino, or classic Italian bread.  Some of my favorite breads – the French baguette, ciabatta, and filoncino – all have in common a crispy, crunchy crust with a light, chewy center and plenty of air pockets.

The texture is the thing I love about it.  And the simplicity.  It works so well as a sponge for pasta sauce or vinaigrette.  You can grill it and rub it with garlic and sea salt.  You can even bake it into caramel custard or make it into phenomenal French toast.  Or, you can eat it plain or with a spread of butter and it will be delicious.

I’ve always bought mine from the store, because, until yesterday, I didn’t realize that such an artful piece of food could be – and I’m dead serious here - easily made at home.

I had no idea!  And here I am, all proud of myself because I made Italian bread that tastes every bit as good as the bread in Italy, and I made it in my own kitchen in about 15 minutes of hands-on time.

I’ll provide the recipe here, however, for more detailed instructions I suggest you go right to this excellent source.

You’ll need:
3 1/2 c unbleached bread flour (plus more for dusting)
1 tsp instant yeast
2 tsps sea salt
cornmeal (for the baking peel)
a pizza stone

A food processor comes in handy too, but it isn’t essential.

1. Mix the first three in the food processor for 5 seconds. Continue blending while slowly adding 1 1/4 c just-warm water through the feeder.  Dump the dough onto a floured counter, shape quickly into a ball, put in a heavily floured bowl and cover to rise 2 hours or until doubled.  (Now, don't even start whining about 2 hours! Don't you have errands to run?  Anyway, if it rises an hour and a half, or three hours, it won't hurt anybody).
Here it is, pre-rise.
And here it is, post-rise.

2. Dump the risen dough out onto a floured counter and divide into three balls. Cover with a towel to rest 15 minutes. Preheat a pizza stone in a 475 degree oven.

3. Knead each ball of dough a few times, using the heel of your palm to push it down, then folding the dough over, turning 180 degrees, kneading, then folding, finally shaping each into a long roll, like a skinny Italian baguette should be.  Cover with a towel again and let rise 30 minutes or until doubled.

4. Slash little diagonal slits across each baguette to keep the bread from going all catawampus in the oven... uh oh.  I already ran into a little trouble here. You do need a razer blade to do this, because the dough is so stretchy a knife won't cut it without compromising the risey-ness!  My bread blew up a little in the oven because I couldn’t manage the slits, but no biggie. (See, bread really isn’t that hard. You can’t break it!)

5. Sprinkle a baking peel (or upside down baking sheet) with the cornmeal and dust with flour. Use it to slide the bread onto the stone in the oven.  Lower the temp to 450, and bake for 25 minutes, misting lightly with water three times during the first 10 minutes of baking to ensure a crispy crust! (I didn’t have a spray bottle, so I used a straw to fling water into the hot oven. Hey, it worked!)

6. Cool on racks and don’t you dare put this in a plastic bag/container.  You want the crust to stay crispy so leave it on the racks! J

It was so delicious and I couldn’t believe that I, an untrained average cook could make bread like the restaurants.  Anyone who wants to make bread can do this, no problem.  In fact, the bread was devoured by everyone and they loved it so much that I'm making more today, to have with spaghetti puttanesca tonight!

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