Ciabatta, Filone, Focaccia, Muffuletta, Vastedda, Ah pane…“A bread by any other name would smell as sweet. I can sense Sir William Shakespeare rolling over in his grave as I write this… Today, I want to briefly delve into a little history of another Italian staple; Bread or as we Italians affectionately call it “pane.”
Although pizza, spaghetti and other pastas are normally associated with our culture, bread or pane plays a very important role in the diets of most of us Italians as well. There is rarely a meal served in Italy, or at any Italian meal, where bread is not included. Italy and pane are synonymous.
While no one really knows when the first bread was baked it has been around for thousands of years, with proof of being produced using the stone tools and ovens of men long ago. In ancient Rome bakers were deemed very prestigious. Bakery was not only important, but also a ritual. Ovens were even built in temples. Romans were the first bakers to produce the flour to bake what is known today as “white bread”. Romans were also responsible for tweaking the wheat’s milling techniques. Around 100 BC, it is believed that Rome contained more than 200 commercial shops that baked and sold bread. They also established a school of baking around 100 AD.
Quick Ciabatta (Plain or with Olives)
4 cups all-purpose flour
2¼ tsp active dry yeast
2¼ cups lukewarm water
1 ½ -2 teaspoons salt
½ tsp sugar (helps quicken the rise)
1 cup chopped & pitted kalamata olives (if using)
- Mix the sugar, water and yeast in a bowl or measuring cup. Set aside for ten minutes for the yeast to proof…bubble.
- Add flour and salt in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Mix in yeast water mixture. Mix on low for 5 minutes.
- Let stand for about 15 minutes. Then turn mixer to a medium high setting.
- Switch the paddle to a dough hook and knead for another 7-8 minutes until dough starts pulling cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. It will be smooth, but still very sticky and loose. Add olives (if using) and mix for 1 minute more.
- Grease a bowl and place in the dough. Cover with a plastic wrap then a kitchen towel and place in a warm area.
- In about 1½ to 2 hours, the dough will double.
- Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, dust generously with flour.
- Pour the dough into the center of the cookie sheet. Dust the top with flour.
- Using a bench scraper, divide the dough into two pieces. Shape the dough, tucking the irregular pieces underneath, until you have two flat logs. Place about 6-7” apart. This is rustic bread, and the wet dough will form an irregular shape. This is known as Italian slipper bread for a reason. The baked bread will have hundreds of gorgeous air holes. YUM!
- Dust more flour over the logs, then cover them with a loose kitchen towel and place in a warm spot for about an hour or until the logs are risen and all puffy looking.
- About half an hour before baking, preheat the oven to 500*F with a pizza stone or baking stone in place. Place an empty pan in the bottom rack while preheating, and then add a cup of water just before you place the bread in the oven.
- Place the ciabatta loaves directly on the baking stone by sliding the parchment off your cookie sheet onto the stone.
- Bake for 25 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped.
- Cool thoroughly before slicing.
The roots of bread in Italy go far back in time. The average Italian will consume half a pound of bread a day. All Italian bread is not the same, however. This is a common misconception – that Italian bread is only one type of bread (see above) If you travel to various cities in Italy, you’ll discover that each area has its own distinct recipe for making bread.
The vast popularity of brick ovens throughout the years have contributed a great deal to the abundance of bread in Italy. Round ovens built from brick or local stone have been around in Italy for a very long time. Unlike other nations, where individuals rarely owned full rights to use an oven, ovens in Italy were typically owned by families and were smaller in size.
So, you see my friends, bread to us Italians, is not merely another type of food; it is a way of life, a state of being and an important part of our heritage. To provide a universal idea of how we Italians view “pane” I would like to quote English Poet, Robert Browning “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
Focaccia with Heirloom Tomatoes, Rosemary, Kalamata & Seeds