17 May 2010

Pane Toscano

Ah, the bread-eaters of Tuscany!

As the descendant of southern Italians, I'd always considered pasta as an indispensable part of the Italian cuisine.  But during a road trip through Italy years ago, I learned that the traditional starch in the Tuscan diet is actually bread, not pasta.  Pane Toscano (Tuscan bread) is a white bread usually baked as a large, round loaf, with a soft interior and a golden crusty exterior.  And, there is no salt in it.

My family and I discovered this lack of salt over supper one night.  We'd been traipsing all over Florence that day, and had picked up some of the sharpest provolone cheese I've ever tasted at the Mercato Centrale (just a few blocks away from the Duomo).  I'd mustered up my college Italian to do a little marketing at the Mercato, and I started by ordering some provolone cheese.  Oh, was the friendly cheesemonger ever amused.  He chuckled, jumped, and exclaimed "oops!" making a cutting motion over his fingers.  I had bungled up my first grocery order in Italian with a request for "tagli" rather than for "fette."  Of course, I didn't want cuts as in "I cut my fingers," but rather slices of cheese, as he explained to me in Italian.  Thanks to that huomo simpatico, I'll remember the difference!  But anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, bread...

Driving back to our lodgings (a fantastic agriturismo located in a castle outside of Siena), we picked up the makings for a simple supper of bread, cured meats, olives, tomatoes, some fresh fruit, and of course we had our provolone.  Sitting at the massive wooden table in the middle of the cavernous guest kitchen, we dug into our picnic supper with relish.  Each component was so flavorful and pure, but the bread...ah the bread just didn't taste right!  Or... was it really something brilliant?

Over this meal, we learned how bread is eaten the Tuscan way; as I think back on that moment, I realize even more what a paradigm shift in my thinking and eating it was.  The saltless bread of Tuscany is not necessarily a focal point of the meal, but rather a clever backdrop to the intense flavors of the local salty olives, cured meats, and sharp cheeses, or a vehicle for sopping up the regional savory stews.  And even when it becomes stale, it retains glorious potential, giving rise to new flavor and texture when cooked in soups or tossed into a fresh panzanella salad.  Perhaps this ancient bread recipe, which has been revered by the Tuscans for centuries, gives rise to such a multitude of delicious possibilities precisely because of what it does not have: salt.  It's counter to all I'd learned about salt.  But I'd eaten pane toscano in ways that revealed its beauty, and that is what got me into making saltless bread at home.

Thankfully, real artisan-style pane toscano can be made right in your very own kitchen!  This recipe yields a lovely round loaf of traditional Tuscan bread, with a fluffy internal crumb and a crunchy, golden crust.  I was thrilled with the professional results I got!  To get the good crust, you'll want to simulate the conditions of a professional bread oven by baking the loaf on a pizza stone and periodically misting the loaf with water (to create some steam) early in the baking period.  And fresh out of the oven, I think you'll love eating hunks of this bread just on its own, salt or no!

But let me confess here: the real reason I wanted to make pane toscano was so that I could make me some panzanella.  Oh sweet heaven, is it ever worth it...  So get into the kitchen and make this bread!  You'll want to have it on hand when we get to the panzanella next time!

Pane Toscano (Traditional Tuscan Bread)
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 1 large loaf of bread

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2/3 cup lukewarm (110°F) water
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1 cup room-temperature water
3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour + 1 cup more for kneading in

Olive oil, for greasing the bowl
Make the sponge the night before you want to make bread. Pour the 2/3 cup warm water into the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the 1/4 teaspoon yeast over. Let soften for about 10 minutes, then add the 1 1/3 cups flour and mix well. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.

The next day, stir the 1 1/4 teaspoons yeast into the 1/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add this mixture along with the 1 cup room-temperature water to the sponge and mix well. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the 3 3/4 cups flour; switch to the dough hook attachment and continue to run the electric mixer, adding remaining cup of flour a little at a time until dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is developed, about 5-10 minutes on low.  Form the dough into a ball and place the dough in a well-greased bowl, turning to coat all sides with olive oil.  Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down or handling it roughly. Gently form it into a large, round loaf by pulling all the edges underneath, gathering them and squeezing them together, leaving the top smooth. If you have a baking stone, place the loaf on a sheet of parchment paper; if you're using a pan, sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of the pan, and place loaf on it. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slash the top of the bread in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If you're using a baking stone, use a peel to transfer the loaf, parchment paper and all, to the stone in the oven. Otherwise, put the pan of bread into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, misting bread with water from a spray bottle three times during the 15 minutes. (If you don't have a spray bottle, an alternative which I used with great success is to flick a pastry brush dipped in water over the bread and the sides of the oven.)  Reduce heat to 400°F and bake 25 to 30 minutes longer, tenting with foil if bread browns too quickly.


The Housewife said...

That bread looks like perfection! The possibilities are endless... although I have to say, like your meal in Italy, the simple combination of cheese and bread sounds so good!

amber said...

I live in Tuscany, and I must say, your Pane Toscano looks better than the Pane Toscano I can get down the street!! Happy Baking!!

erica said...

Hello Amber, thank you so much for your kind comments! My visit to your part of the world was one of the best experiences of my life, and I have been really enjoying recreating the flavors of Tuscany now that I'm back home...and hoping to get back to Italy one of these days! :)

Post a Comment