Well...this is not going well. I am part-way through the process of making my first ciabatta, and I was pretty nervous going in. Every post I read talked about how challenging this bread was, how difficult it was to get the requisite holes. I even read some people who speculated that there was actually an error in the recipe itself, since it was consistently producing such less-than-stellar results. So I read...a lot. Nicole from Pinch My Salt explained that many people had found more success with the biga version, but she opted to try the poolish anyway. Being a much less experienced baker than her, I decided that if the biga was working better, that's probably what I should try. So I found this post from Hayley at Appoggiatura and it was extremely helpful. She also referenced this thread from The Fresh Loaf, which I studied multiple times. Although the discussion at the Fresh Loaf referenced another recipe that seemed to deliver more positive results, I decided that being part of the Challenge meant that I should try to stick to Peter Reinhart's basic recipe.
But I decided to use two pieces of advice that seemed to be repeated throughout the thread: keep the dough very hydrated and cut the initial mixing time.
I made my biga last night, using the maximum amount of water called for. It sat overnight and, while sticky, was pretty easy to deal with this morning.
When it came time to add the rest of the ingredients, I again added the max amount of water and the optional olive oil.
I think I messed up in the next step. In the Fresh Loaf thread, people talked about not overmixing, so I only mixed it for 3-4 minutes in my mixer, at the lowest speed, instead of the 7-9 called for in the book. And I realized that I also never switched to the dough hook.
As such, my dough never seemed to turn into dough. I mean, I know this is wet and sticky stuff, but I just couldn't do the stretch and fold step because the dough would absolutely not stretch; it just glopped. It was beyond wet.
And now I'm thinking that I should've just stuck to the book....Everyone's complaint with the recipe is that it doesn't produce the requisite holes - but it still tastes great. So what do we care about the holes? We are all about taste in this house; I should've just given up on the holes on my first try and concentrated on the taste. We are in the second (and longer) rise time right now before final forming....So I guess we'll just have to wait and see!
***Change in plans
So after typing all of this up, I was still obsessing and went back and re-read a bunch of the posts I'd read earlier. And no one else seemed to have this extra gloppy, super wet dough; everyone said the stretching and turning went fine. I went back to the Fresh Loaf thread and spent a lot of time on this comment, which said, "If your dough is not really gloppy, add extra water until the dough is soft enough to spread" - um, that is my dough. So I changed my mind and decided to use the turning method recommended in the Glezer recipe (the one they kept comparing the Reinhart recipe to). She comments, "You will be amazed at how the dough firms up during the turning," and I really was. After some extra time, some extra turning, and a blend of the two methods, my dough finally feels like dough and not like sloppy gloppy batter.
.............I did not have a couche (could not find one in any store, or even a piece of untreated canvas or heavy linen); finally my dad found an old cotton futon cover in the basement, so I washed it and it worked really well. I got the bread situated on my make-shift couche and I will say that this was the one step out of the whole process where my bread dough actually looked like the pictures in the book:
While the bread was in its final proofing stage, I got the oven ready: preheated to 500 degrees, steam pan in place, baking stone on the center shelf.
I used a sheet pan coated with semolina flour to transfer the bread to the baking stone - only it wouldn't slide off the pan. I didn't read about that happening to anyone else; maybe I didn't use enough semolina? So my prettily shaped loaves had to be globbed off and lost their form. I then tried to do the steaming: a cup of hot water into the steam pan and spritzing the oven walls at 30 second intervals....But to add to my excitement, the baby just would not stay out of the kitchen, so I kept having to yell and then chase her out and then try to spritz again and then chase her again....I'm guessing the oven was open way too long and lost a lot of its heat; anyway, my loaves achieved the appropriate temperature after 20 minutes but never got to that pretty golden color. Here is the (not so pretty) final product:
And after all of that....same thing everyone else reported: great ciabatta taste (in fact, one loaf totally disappeared when I had my brother, mom, and stepdad over for stew tonight and the other one was almost completely depleted once hubby got home from his football game), but no big holes.
Oh well. Hubby said he's glad because they make better sandwiches without the giant holes. At any rate, I don't see myself making this one again...at least not for a while.
I'm excited that the next several breads (cinnamon buns, cinnamon-walnut bread, corn bread) seem relatively easy...and we'll jump back into the more challenging ones once football season is over and hubby can help with the kids while I'm baking.