At Amy’s Bread we make our crusty rectangles of Rustic Italian bread in two sizes, as well as long skinny Filone and Country White Boules. This white bread with an airy open crumb is our version of ciabatta bread. We love it because it has so much versatility. It can be cut into flat rectangle-shaped loaves of varying sizes that are more crust than crumb, or into long chewy breadsticks covered in sesame, poppy and dill seeds and salt. With the addition of Picholine (green) olives, it can be made into Amy’s delicious Picholine Olive Bread. Spread it on a sheet pan and top it with fresh tomatoes, basil, Parmesan, and fresh mozzarella for a simple pizza. Add toasted walnut halves or pieces to the dough for flavorful walnut bread that goes great with cheese. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
This is a very wet dough that develops much of its strength and elasticity while it proofs in the bowl after being mixed. It takes practice to get used to handling and shaping dough this wet, but with a little persistence you’ll soon be an expert and will want to use this recipe again and again.
Adapted from "Amy's Bread, Revised and Updated" by Amy Scherber, Toy Kim Dupree, and Aimee Herring
Combine the very warm water and the yeast in a measuring cup and stir to dissolve the yeast. Let stand for 3 minutes. In a large mixing bowl, combine the poolish, water and yeast mixture and break up the poolish with your fingers. Add the flour and salt and mix with your fingers to moisten the flour. When all of the flour is incorporated, move the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 4 minutes using a dough scraper to lift and turn the dough. The dough should look like a thick batter, should be very sticky, and will not look smooth. If the dough feels firm or dry, knead in additional cool water a tablespoon at a time.
Put the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover with oiled plastic, and let rest for 15 minutes to smooth out and develop elasticity. Return the dough to the lightly floured surface and knead it for 6-8 minutes, lifting and scraping it up with a dough scraper. The dough will already feel stretchy, but will become smooth and develop strength with kneading. Do not knead extra flour into the dough. It should have some strength and elasticity but it will still be soft and sticky and you will not be able to pull a transparent sheet without having it tear. The dough temperature should be around 77 degrees.
Put the dough in an oiled bowl that is large enough to allow it to almost double, cover it with oiled plastic wrap, and allow it to rise for 1 hour. It should feel puffy but it will not have doubled. Gently fold the dough in from the sides to the middle to degas it, turn it over so the smoother bottom side is up, cover it and let it rise again for 45-50 minutes. The dough will almost double during this second rest and it should feel strong and supple by the end of the time period. You will be able to pull a small transparent sheet — the final development of the dough occurs while it is resting.
While the dough rests, prepare a proofing pan for the loaves by lining a 12-by-17-inch sheet pan with baker’s linen so it overlaps the sides and sprinkle it with a generous amount of flour; or a dish towel sprinkled generously with flour; or just line the pan with baking parchment and sprinkle the parchment with a moderate amount of flour.
Pour the dough gently out onto a well floured work surface. By pulling and patting gently with your hands, shape the dough into a big rectangular pillow, about 16-by-9 inches, with the long sides at the top and bottom. Try not to deflate the dough too much. Using a dough scraper, cut the rectangle in half from top to bottom, so you have two 8-by-12-inch pieces, with the short sides at the top and bottom.
Ciabatta: At this point the two rectangles of dough could be coated with flour and placed on the floured cloth to rise briefly before being turned over and baked to make a rustic ciabatta loaf.
Batard: To shape the dough into a batard, with lightly floured hands, fold the top two corners in toward the center of the rectangle to form a triangle shape at the top, pressing gently along the seam to seal it slightly. Keeping your hands lightly floured, use your fingers to fold the point of the triangle down into the center of the dough, pressing gently to seal the edge, forming a crescent shape now along the top of the loaf. Roll the dough down over itself about a third of the way and working from one end to the other, seal the seam with the heel of your hand. Give the loaf two or three more folds like this, and when the two edges meet, seal the final seam tightly with the heel of your hand. Now roll the loaf gently back and forth on the table under your palms once or twice working from the center of the loaf out to the ends to smooth out, elongate slightly, and taper the loaf. The batard should be about 14 inches long. Place the shaped batard lengthwise on the prepared pan, placing it next to one edge (be sure the edge of the pan is covered by part of the floured cloth.) Shape the second piece of dough in the same way, and place it on the pan right next to the first loaf, pulling up a three-inch pleat of cloth to separate the two loaves. Pull up another pleat of cloth on the outside of the second loaf to support it while it rises. If you’re using a parchment lined pan, place the loaves about two inches in from the sides and leave about 3 or 4 inches between the 2 loaves. Cover the loaves with oiled plastic wrap and let them rise until they have almost doubled. They should look large and plump and hold a slight indentation when pressed lightly your finger. This could take 1 hour or more depending on the temperature of the dough and how tightly the batard is shaped. Baking them when they’re slightly under proofed guarantees more oven spring which contributes to a more open, airy crumb in the finished loaf.
Boule: To shape this dough into a boule, take a piece of dough and place it on the lightly floured surface. Pull the corners of the dough into the center and gather them into a point, then pinch together. Turn the dough over on an unfloured surface and turn it against the table in a clockwise motion to tighten the surface of the dough. When the surface is taut and the loaf is perfectly round, place it on the floured cloth to rise.
While the loaves are rising, prepare the oven for baking bread by placing a shallow cast-iron pan (like a skillet) and a small bread pan (a mini pan works well) on the floor of the oven. If you’re using an electric oven, you’ll have to put them on an oven rack that is positioned on the lowest possible rung. Place an oven rack two rungs above the cast iron pan, and put a baking stone on it if you have one. Fill the spray bottle with water. Fill a tea kettle with water to be boiled later, and have a metal 1-cup measure with a straight handle on it available near the kettle. At least 30 minutes before the loaves are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 480 degrees.
About 5 or 10 minutes before the loaves are ready to go into the oven, sprinkle the wooden peel with coarse cornmeal and gently lift each loaf from the proofing pan onto the peel. The easiest way to do this is to put one hand under each end of the loaf and gently scoot them in toward the center of the loaf so that it will be supported during the move. Try not to stretch them and leave enough space between the two loaves to allow for spreading in the oven. Cover them again with the oiled plastic wrap. Turn the water on to boil, and carefully place 2 ice cubes in the small bread pan in the bottom of the oven. This helps to create moisture in the oven prior to baking.
When the loaves are ready, use a lame or a sharp razor blade to score the loaves. For the batards make 2 cuts, the first one starting at one tip and running half way down the loaf, and the second cut next to the first for 1 inch, running to the other tip of the loaf. For the boule, score a 5 spoke fan on the top of the loaf, joining the 5 lines at one point at the bottom of the loaf. The ciabatta does not need to be scored. Use the plastic water bottle to mist the loaves lightly with water. Quickly but carefully fill the metal 1-cup measure with boiling water, open the oven and slide the loaves onto the baking stone, being mindful not to stretch them too much, then quickly (but carefully) pour the boiling water into the cast iron pan and immediately close the oven door. (If you’re baking without a stone simply slide the sheet pan with the scored and misted loaves onto the empty oven rack.)
After 3 minutes, pour in another ½ cup of boiling water. Check the loaves after 20 minutes and rotate them if necessary to insure even browning. Bake them for a total of 45-50 minutes or until they are uniformly dark golden brown in color and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool them completely on a wire rack before cutting them.
Chef’s tip: We used unbleached bread flour with a protein content of 12% for this dough. If the dough is still weak and not fully developed at the end of step 4 in the recipe, degas it and turn it again. Let it rise for 30 minutes or more until it has almost doubled. Check it again to see if you can pull a transparent sheet. It should be ready to divide at the end of that third turn.