Ciabatta

I've become a little spoiled in the bread-making sense of things. Most of the most recent breads I've made have all been quick breads, or breads that require very little rising time. None of the past breads that I've made have even remotely come close to this bread right here. It literally took two days to make, but let me tell you, it was definitely worth the wait. It can be used for dipping, in sandwiches, alone, for anything your heart desires. Its taste and texture make this, so far, the best bread I have ever made/tried. I'm recommending it to everyone, and even though it's time-consuming, it is worth the energy and the wait. This recipe from Williams-Sonoma: Bread has two little background side-notes that come in handy:

"CIABATTA: The Italian word ciabatta, or "slipper," describes the shape of this loaf, which is like a flat slipper or old shoe. The dough is so wet that it is easiest to mix by machine. It is made with an Italian-style started called a biga, which is firm like a bread dough rather than soft like a sponge. The biga must rest overnight, so plan to make this bread over the course of 2 days. The chewy loaf is dimpled with big, uneven holes, known as occhi, or "eyes.""

"BAKING STONES: Also known as pizza stones or baking tiles, baking stones are available in large rounds and rectangles. Made of high-fired unglazed clay stoneware, they retain and distribute heat evenly for a more uniformly baked loaf and nicely browned crusts. To be effective, the stone must be preheated in the oven for at least 30 minutes before the bread is placed on it. Wipe the cooled stone clean after use; do not use soap and water."

Ciabatta
*makes 2 large loaves*

Ingredients:
FOR THE BIGA STARTER
1 1/3 cups water, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp active dry yeast

3 tbsp warm water
3/4 cup warm whole milk
2 tsp active dry yeast
2-2 1/3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing

Directions:
1) To make the starter, in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the water, 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, and the yeast. Mix on low speed for 1 minute. Add the remaining all-purpose flour and mix until smooth and soft, about 1 minute. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until almost tripled in bulk, 4-6 hours. The starter will smell yeasty. Refrigerate for 8-12 hours or for up to 3 days. When ready to make the dough, remove the starter from the refrigerator and let stand for 1-2 hours.
2) To make the dough, fit the mixer again with the paddle attachment. Add the warm water and milk and the yeast to the starter and mix on low speed, making a souplike mixture. Add 1 1/2 cups of the bread flour, the salt, and the oil. Mix on low speed, until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add only as much of the remaining bread flour as needed to form a very soft and moist dough, and mix on low speed for 5 minutes, occasionally scraping the dough off the bowl sides and paddle. The dough should be very soft and sticky, pulling away from the sides of the bowl but sticking to the bottom.
3) Cover the bowl with oiled plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled or tripled in bulk, about 2 hours. The top will be smooth, but the dough will be sticky under the surface.
4) Line a large, heavy baking sheet with aluminum foil and sprinkle generously with bread flour. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board, sprinkle lightly with flour, and pat with your fingers into a 14-by-5-inch rectangle. Fold the rectangle like a letter, overlapping the 2 short sides in the middle to make 3 layers. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the sprinkling and folding, letting the dough rest for 10 minutes if it seems too springy to fold. Cut the dough crosswise into 2 equal rectangles and place each half on the prepared sheet. Cover loosely with plastic and let rest for 20 minutes.
5) Sprinkle the tops generously with flour. Holding your fingers in an open, splayed position, press, push, and stretch each dough rectangle, making an irregular rectangle about 11 inches long and the width of your hand. Your fingers will press the dough unevenly, producing the characteristic dimpled texture in the baked loaf. Cover again loosely with plastic and let rest until tripled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Press the dough to accentuate the dimpling 2 more times during this rise. The loaves will remain relatively flat.
6) Place a baking stone on the lower oven rack and preheat to 425F. Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with flour and place the baking sheet on the stone. Bake until deep golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet. Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you want to print this recipe out, go here to its link on the Williams-Sonoma site.

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