In the grain: Bake lightly

Learn to beat summer-baking challenges with these Mediterranean-style breads.

Sourdough bread (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sourdough bread
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The long, balmy days of summer are upon us, the romantic nostalgia of summers of yesteryear, the lure of the waves, the samba beat, summer camps and family vacations.
For the professional baker, the summer season signals a slowing of pace as the clientele packs up on vacation and eats less in the sweltering heat. It is a time of the year I particularly enjoy as it also heralds the start of our summer baking workshops, allowing one to share the joys of baking hands-on with the public.
The home baker will similarly be less engaged and, if at all, concentrating on light, easily digestible fare. Summer baking poses a number of challenges to the baker, not the least of which is chasing after your dough as it rises more speedily in the summer heat. For more details on this you may refer to a previous article on seasonal baking at 330469.
In this and additional articles throughout the summer, I will focus on interesting and novel ideas for baking light, Mediterranean-style breads that are perfect for our climate and palate.
Today, we will be cruising off to sunny Italy to explore one of the local delights, panini.
Panini are Italian-style sandwiches made from anything other than sliced bread, usually some kind of roll such as ciabatta (pronounced “chabatta”).
The secret to Italian-style baking is “biga,” a preferment, similar in function to sourdough, but made using regular yeast. With the introduction of bakers yeast over a century ago (mostly replacing previous sourdough techniques), the Italian bakers began to miss the flavor of sourdough. To this purpose they developed a compromise solution called biga, which combines the “nutty” taste of sourdough, with the convenience of bakers yeast.
Biga is made fresh the night before baking, using a very small quantity of bakers yeast that ferments in a stiff dough overnight and is then added to the final dough. This preferment, while not as sour as wild yeast sourdough, adds significant flavor and texture to the bread and is the cornerstone for Italian breads such as ciabatta, with a crackling, crispy crust and a light, open texture.
Ciabatta – Italian for “slipper” – is so named because the shape of the bread resembles the common home footwear. This is not by chance or by design, but due to the nature of the dough. Before the emergence of ciabatta, dough was made with a stiff consistency. Professional bakers call this the hydration factor – the ratio of flour to water in the dough. In most bread this is 55-65 percent, (e.g. 1 kg. flour with 550-650 ml.
water). This creates a stiff enough dough, that when shaped retains its shape – oval, round etc.
Ciabatta is said to be the brainchild of Italian baker Arnaldo Cavallari from a small town near Venice, who was appalled at the increasing infiltration of French baguette in Italian cuisine and set about inventing an authentic Italian bread to supplant it.
His drastic approach was unprecedented in baking circles, deluging his dough with water, not the normal 65%, but 75% or more, thus creating a very wet, sticky and unmanageable dough, that when baked however, produced a very open and light chewy texture, unlike anything ever seen before.
Due to the low viscosity and stickiness of the dough, it was impossible to shape conventionally and the only way to create loaves was to cut them in rectangular pieces using a knife or dough cutter.
These flat rectangles of dough, when baked, resemble a slipper, hence the name.
Needless to say this revolutionary bread, invented in the early 1980s, took Italy and the world by storm and is the most popular bread used for Italian panini.
Sliced down the middle, filled with cold cuts, a few slices of lettuce, tomato and perhaps some onion, this makes the perfect light summer meal.
Buon appetito!
(makes 10 rolls)
Preparing the Biga:
✔ 1½ cups white flour
✔ 1½ cups finely ground whole grain flour
✔ 1¼ cups water
✔ 1 tiny pinch of instant powdered yeast (the exact weight is ½ gram)
Mix until incorporated and leave to ferment for 16 hours.
Final dough:
✔ 2⅓ cups white flour
✔ 2⅓ cups finely ground whole grain flour
✔ 2½ cups water
✔ 1⁄8 tsp. instant powdered yeast
✔ 5 tsp. salt
✔ ¼ cup olive oil
✔ Biga Mix the biga with the final dough ingredients and knead for 5 minutes.
Leave to rise covered for 3 hours, punching down each hour. Pour dough onto well floured surface, dust hands with flour, flatten to 2.5 cm. thick. Cut into rectangular shapes with knife or dough cutter and place on baking tray. Leave to rise for 45 minutes. Bake for 35 minutes at 240°.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. The S.A.B.I conducts baking workshops during the summer