On Saturdays in late fall at the end of a long day in the family’s olive groves, we brought our sacks of olives to the frantoio, where the oil was cold-pressed from the fruit’s pit. With dirt under our fingernails, we toasted slices of rustic bread on the frantoio’s open fire and drizzled the freshly pressed virgin oil on top. The warm toasted bread with fragrant new oil on top was a worthy end to the hard work of harvesting olives. While we love being able to find a nice, crusty pagnotta or a freshly baked ciabatta at our local bakery or supermarket, the cost of one burns a hole in our pockets. Over $4 for a loaf of bread? It’s made with only flour, yeast and water, after all. And is it just us, or have the loaves been getting smaller?
Spending that much on bread really wasn’t an option for us, but going without or substituting soft American bread wasn’t either. So, we decided to make our own. It took several months of experimenting with ingredients and methods to get it right. The most difficult part was figuring out how to produce bread with a crunchy, rustic crust. A standard bread machine didn’t work, and neither did baking loaves right on a baking sheet. In both cases, the flavor was good, but the bread was too dense and its crust too soft.
Finally, after a great deal of research and experimentation, we came upon this article that shed light on the problem. The key, we learned, is using a sticky, wet dough and baking it inside a cast iron dutch oven at very high heat. High humidity coupled with high heat produces bread with crusty golden-brown exterior, and a spongy, chewy interior. It is so good that even our Italian friends and relatives are impressed. —DueSpaghetti