I hope everyone got to cook and eat as much this past weekend as I did. Food (as it always is) has been so much on my mind, I just wrote "pasta" instead of "past." I just did it again.
We're Italian – obviously – so we did our annual Feast of the Seven Fishes, complete with fish salad, octopus, baccalà, linguini with mussel & clam sauce, linguini with stuffed calamari in red sauce, crab claws, etc. etc. If you've even gone HAM in a bowl of mussels steamed in a huge vat with white wine, red pepper flakes, and some garlic, you know that, between cracking open those iridescent black shells, you're sopping up all of that fragrant goodness with a piece of thick, crusty Italian bread.
Or maybe you don't like mussels, but you still understand the importance of a toasted sesame seed-topped braided loaf of Italian bread. If you don't even understand that, you're in my prayers, and keep reading so you can make one yourself.
My mother and I have a King Arthur Flour obsession - all of the flours, cookbooks, and bundt pans are stashed in many drawers, pantries, and containers throughout our house. My mom literally has a scheduled bi-weekly delivery, because you can never have too much Italian, Bread, or Sir Lancelot flour. This recipe came from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, aka The Bible (page 243!!!!) Please note that you have to start this recipe before you plan on enjoying it! The biga (a combination of yeast, water, and flour, the main components of many breads) needs to rest for at least 12 hours, to allow the yeast to feed and grow, and the gluten to begin to develop. This will also give the bread the signature chewiness, light sour taste, and beautiful air pockets.
I have been borrowing my mom's Baker's Companion for years now, until yesterday! It was gifted to me by my wonderful godfather, knowing that I desperately needed my own (no more doughy pages for you to deal with, Momma!)
Check out the recipe below, and go buy yourself some top-notch flour.
Italian Crusty Bread
For the biga...
- 1 cup cool water
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast
For the dough...
- 1/2 cup cool water
- 2 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose water
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
For the topping...
- 1 egg white, beaten with some water
- Sesame seeds
For the biga... Combine all the biga ingredients, mixing until a dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and let the starter rest for 12 hours to 16 hours at room temperature.
For the dough... After all of those hours, add the water and mix until smooth. Add all of the other dough ingredients and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes by hand. Place the dough in a bowl, lightly greased with olive oil, and allow it to rise at room temperature or in a proofer for 1 1/2 hours. Gently deflate the dough after each 30 to 45 minutes during this time to redistribute the yeast's food and to further develop the gluten. After the time has passed, remove the dough from the bowl and divide into three equal strands, about 20 inches long. Braid the ropes together and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Cover the braid with plastic wrap and allow to rise for a final time at either room temperature or in a proofer again, for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The time gap depends on how warm the air is – if it's cooler in your kitchen, let it sit for the full time. If you have your dough in a proofer, or around 85ºF, leave it for an hour. Preheat your oven to 425ºF. Then, brush the braid with the egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Be super gentle – you don't want to deflate the dough. Bake the bread for about 25 to 35 minutes, until a thermometer registers the internal temperature of the bread to be between 190º to 205º F. Then, switch your oven temperature up to 500º F for 3 minutes, just to nicely brown and crisp up the top. You can leave the bread for less than 3 minutes, or skip this step altogether if you're happy with the color of your crust. Allow the bread to cool completely before cutting into!
I hope this recipe really gets you into bread-making. Baking bread seems like such a feat, and an impossible one at that. While it is very time consuming, it is more than worth it. There's nothing like sharing and breaking bread with family and loved ones, especially over a plate of pasta.
My name is Alexandra Jade, but you can call me Alex, or Trin. I am a Food Studies major at New York University, and a freelance photographer, journalist, and social media pro on the side. I run the instagram account @twobrunchgirls.