Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pane Toscano

The "Tuscan Bread" that you see in stores here in the States is not really Tuscan bread.  Sorry.  It's not, unless you somehow find traditional pane toscano in an Italian bakery.

Traditional pane toscano is a very simple bread.  It only has three ingredients:  yeast, water, and flour.  That's it.  No salt whatsoever.  This can seem strange, but once you try it alongside a highly flavorful Tuscan dish, it makes complete sense.  The neutrality of it helps enhance the other flavors, especially when used in crostini or ribollita.

Toasted pane toscano makes a great base for flavorful salse

It's fairly easy to make this bread, but it is going to take some time.  If you're game, here's how you can do it:

First, you need to make the sponge.  You'll want to do this the night before you want to bake, so it can take it's time to rise.

Stir 1/4 teaspoon of active dry yeast into 2/3 cup of warm water.  Let that sit for about 10 minutes or so until it gets all foamy and bubbly.  Then add 1-1/3 cups of flour and mix it all up.  Cover it with plastic wrap & leave it alone.

The next day, you should see something like this:

Stir 1-1/4 teaspoons of active dry yeast into 1/3 cup of warm water and let it sit (like you did the first time) until it gets all nice and bubbly (about 10 minutes).

Then, you need to add the sponge and 1 cup of room-temperature water to the yeast water.  It's going to look weird, but it's normal.

Stir it together well and then beat in 3-3/4 cups of flour until the the dough is stiff enough to knead.  (Yeah, you can probably use your stand mixer to do all this and it would be waaaaaay easier.)  Then plop it all out onto a lightly floured surface.

Knead it for about 10 minutes.  It should be nice and firm and elastic.  Then, you can do one of two things, depending on what you want your loaf to look like.  If you want a round loaf, then you will want to put it into a large bowl that has been well-oiled with some good olive oil (and turn the dough over so the oil coats both sides).  Personally, I prefer a long loaf, so I line a big baking dish (in my case, a lasagne pan) with some plastic wrap and oil it with olive oil.  Then I roll the dough into a log with my hands and plop it onto the oil-covered plastic and turn it once to coat it entirely.

Whichever way you choose to do it, cover it with plastic wrap (loosely) and a towel.  You can just use a towel, but I hate getting dough stuck to my towels.  Ick.

Let it sit for an hour, until it doubles.

Sprinkle your work space with a little flour and gently transfer the dough.  Be sure not to punch it down or poke holes in the dough with your's not that kind of dough.  Shape it into a nice oblong loaf  by gently moving the sides with your hands.

Then (if you're making it like I do - in a long loaf), sprinkle some flour onto a baking sheet, then carefully pick up the dough in the plastic wrap and transfer it to the sheet.  Try to avoid poking your fingers into the dough.  I have a hard time not leaving little holes in the dough, as you can see.  Don't be like me.

If you are making it into a round shape, carefully move the dough from the bowl to the lightly floured surface.    Then you will want to form the blob of dough into a round loaf.  Gently pull the edges underneath the ball and squeeze them together.  The top of the loaf should be smooth.  Then place the loaf onto your lightly floured baking sheet.

Cover your loaf with a towel and let it sit until it doubles in size (again).  This will take about an hour.  While you're waiting, preheat your oven to 450°F/230°C.

Just before popping it into the oven, you'll want to take a knife and make a slash down the center of your loaf  (if you've got a round loaf, make 4 slashes, like this: #).

Bake your loaf for 15 minutes.  You will need to mist your loaf with water 3 times during these first 15 minutes to give it a nice, crunchy crust.  This is where a spray bottle comes in handy.  You can pick one up for super cheap at just about any store.  I bought mine at Ikea for $1.

When the first 15 minutes are up (and you have misted the bread with water 3 times), reduce the heat to 400°F/200°C.  Bake for another 25-30 minutes, until you have a nice golden brown crust and it sounds hollow when you tap on the crust.  Cool it for awhile on a rack and then ENJOY!

Buon appetito!

Here's the recipe in "recipe" form:

Pane Toscano (adapted from King Arthur Flour's recipe)

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water
1-1/3 cups flour
1-1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup room temperature water
3-3/4 cups flour

Make sponge the night before you want to bake.
Stir 1/4 teaspoon of yeast into 2/3 cup warm water.  Let sit for about 10 minutes, until it gets bubbly.  Add 1-1/3 cups flour and mix well.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit overnight.

The next day, stir 1-1/4 teaspoon yeast into 1/2 cup warm water.  Let sit for about 10 minutes, until it gets bubbly.  Add the sponge and 1 cup water.  Mix together well.  Beat in the 3-3/4 cups flour until the dough is firm enough to knead.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until firm and elastic (about 10 minutes).

For round shape:
Place dough in a bowl that has been well oiled with olive oil, turning to coat all sides.

For oblong shape:
Place in a dish that has been lined with a piece of plastic wrap coated with olive oil.  Turn dough to coat all sides.

Cover and let rise until it is doubled in size (about 1 hour).

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down or being too rough with it.

For round shape:
Gently form into a round loaf by pulling the edges underneath and gathering/squeezing them together.  The top should be smooth.

For oblong shape:
Shape it into a nice oblong loaf  by gently moving the sides with your hands.

Sprinkle a baking sheet with flour and place the loaf on it.  Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).  Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.  Before placing loaf into oven, make a slit down the center of the oblong loaf, or make slits in the pattern of a #, if you are making a round loaf.  Bake for 15 minutes, misting with water 3 times during this time.  (I mist every 5 minutes).  Then, reduce heat to 400°F/200°C and bake for 25-30 minutes longer.  Remove from oven and cool on cooling rack.

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