Last Sunday, I had the idea that I would make a big pot of Minestrone and share some with a friend who was a bit under the weather. Of course, that would be dinner for us too; I had too much to do to plan two things. In discussing the dinner option, Tony wondered if our favorite bakery might have any Asiago bread. I called, they didn’t. Tony’s idea was to pair up some paninis made with Breadworks fantastic Asiago bread, but alas, it is baked only on Saturday and Tuesday and we didn’t plan ahead.
Not to be deterred, I decided to make bread myself. I got to work and began the biga for my stand-by Ciabatta recipe. I schemed all day about how I might finish the loaves, knowing that I had some Parmesan, Asiago and Romano in the fridge. The biga needs a long head start, but once it’s ready, the bread comes together fairly quickly. I placed the biga in a crockery bowl in the warmest room in the house – near the woodstove.
Once the biga was ready – about 6 hours later, I added the remaining flour, yeast, water and salt and kneaded the dough until it was a beautiful, smooth round. Resting and rising again for about an hour, the plump, sensual dough was ready for experimentation.
I brought out my collection of cheese shards, threw the rind of the Parmigiano Reggiano into the Minestrone and diced up the remainder into 1/4″ pieces. I took about 2/3 cup of the dice and kneaded it into the finished dough and placed the oval loaf in a standard bread loaf pan. So the rising of the dough would be unrestricted, I placed the pan under a huge Tupperware bowl on the counter. I wouldn’t have to worry about pulling off the plastic wrap and inadvertantly ‘de-gassing’ the loaf right before baking.
Another trick that I employed was to preheat the oven with a large, oval roasting pan inside to 450 degrees. I was going to use this roaster as an oven inside my oven to trap the steam emitted from the loaf as it bakes. This idea isn’t original, of course, but is taken from the revolutionary work done at the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. If you don’t know about that, read here.
So, after about an hour of the second rising, I popped the loaf pan into the preheated roaster, closed it up and set the timer for 30 minutes. When the timer alarmed, I removed the lid of the roaster and continued to bake for another 25 minutes. The loaf was cracked and brown dotted with carmelized cheese pieces. We set the loaf outside (because it was about 10 degrees out there) and let it cool down a bit before we sliced it and grilled it for paninis.
The crust on this bread was brittle and crunchy, the interior soft and riddled with slightly irregular pockets of air and cheese. Since the cheese pieces were small and relatively dry, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The cheese melted into the loaf and gave a subtle taste and texture. I would call this a successful experiment for sure. The loaf was gobbled up by six paninis and the end crusts didn’t go wanting either.
The next day, I brought out the remaining portion of dough and shards of cheese and began again. This time, I heated up a 3 quart enameled cast iron dutch oven and moved the cheese bread directly into that vessel (once the rising was complete), covered it and again set the timer for the initial portion of the baking. Uncovered, baked longer and what you see below is the evidence of another successful loaf.
So, there you have it. If Breadworks would have had the Asiago bread, this experiment may never had happened. I am glad they were out of bread, glad I failed to plan ahead. The result was empowering. Every successful cooking experiment pushes me to try new things to feel more secure in my knowledge and more capable to teach.
I won’t spell out the details of the start to finish Ciabatta recipe, that recipe in its entirity is here. Just know that after you have allowed the finished dough its initial rise, cut the dough into two portions. You can add in about 2/3 cups of little cheese chunks to one half of the dough and allow the dough to rise again. The remaining dough can be used for Ciabatta, or another experiment.
If you’d like to make a slicing loaf, place the dough in a traditional loaf pan, the ready the oven with a large roasting pan that will hold the loaf pan. You’ll get the idea by reading the Mark Bittman article here. I must say, that every time I uncover a loaf of bread baked with this method, I am overcome with curiousity and amazement.