A treat I used to enjoy when we lived in the Capital District of New York was to go to Perreca’s Bakery (reviews) in the Little Italy section of Schenectady on Saturday mornings. Part of the lore surrounding Perreca’s was that Frank Sinatra, in Albany for a concert, had some of their bread – and immediately began having it shipped to his home in California each week. Taste it and you’d understand why: round loaves with a thick, crunchy crust surrounding the airiest, most delicately textured interior ever, Perreca’s bread was transcendent. I’d drive down early on Saturdays and buy a couple of loaves still hot from the oven, drive home like a maniac, and begin enjoying it right away.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with different recipes in an attempt to recreate some of the old Perreca’s magic. The loaves you see here represent a reasonable facsimile – with a crunchy crust and an airy texture, they bring me back to those special Saturday mornings.
Does all this come with a price? Well, the recipe couldn’t be simpler – it’s basically flour, water and yeast – with a tiny bit of salt. But making this bread does require an investment in time: much of its flavor comes from the use of a pre-ferment or “biga” as it’s called in Italian. The biga is prepared (this part only requires a few minutes) the evening before the bread is baked. The recipe does call for the dough to rise a total of 4 times – for 4 hours total. Baking time is about 40 minutes – so Day 2 requires that you have around 5 hours available. As such, this is a recipe that’s perfect for a cold winter day, a rainy day, or a lazy Sunday afternoon. Make the investment in time and you’ll be eating some of the best Italian bread you’ve ever had!
Biga (Note: the entire recipe is available for free on the Downloads page)
- 2 cups bread flour
- 1/4 tsp. Instant dry yeast
- 8 oz. water @ room temperature
- 3 cups bread flour
- 1 tsp. instant dry yeast
- 1-1/3 cups water @ room temperature
- Pam spray (I use olive oil Pam for this recipe; regular Pam would be fine too)
- Large baking sheet
Start the evening before with the biga or pre-ferment
Making the biga couldn’t be much simpler: combine all ingredients in a medium to large bowl, and knead for a few minutes, forming a shaggy dough. I always coat the inside of the bowl with a generous spray of Pam; this makes things easier later on. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave out for three hours at room temperature, then refrigerate overnight. Here’s the biga after being kneaded:
…and this is what it looks like the next morning; it will have risen and bubbled quite a bit as it fermented. When you’re ready to form the balance of the dough, remove the biga from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
Mixing the dough
Likewise, the dough itself is simplicity: flour, water, yeast. NOTE: do NOT add the salt at this point. Combine the 3 ingredients in a medium to large bowl. Knead for 3-4 minutes and cover dough loosely with plastic wrap; let the dough rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. (Again, I coat the interior of the bowl with Pam prior to putting the dough back in it.)
After 20 minutes, I sprinkle one of the two teaspoons of table salt over the dough, and then add the biga to the dough by inverting its bowl over that containing the dough. A spatula will help in removing the biga.
Pull the dough/biga mixture out of the bowl and knead it on a clean surface prepped with some Pam spray for a few minutes, thoroughly mixing the salt into the dough. Then add the other teaspoon of salt to the dough and continue to knead it for another 3-4 minutes. Make sure you continue to turn the dough on itself to ensure that the salt is thoroughly mixed throughout the dough and that the biga and new dough are completely blended with one another.
If you’re not comfortable kneading dough, be reassured that it’s not brain surgery; this simple 1′ 30″ video should help:
This is what the biga/dough mixture should look like after being kneaded:
The next few steps aren’t taxing, they’re just time consuming. Let the dough mixture (tightly covered with plastic wrap) rise for an hour at room temperature. Then remove the plastic wrap and gently fold one side of the dough to the other, fold the top to the bottom, and flip it over in the bowl. Having used Pam in the bowl makes this much easier. You are NOT punching down the dough, but rather gently folding it upon itself. Recover tightly with plastic wrap – and repeat this process twice for a total of 3 hours’ worth of rising. After three cycles, it should look something like this:
At this juncture you’re going to have to resort to working on a floured surface. If preparing two loaves, cut the dough in half after turning it from the bowl onto your work surface. Dust your hands and the top surface of each piece of dough with flour. Shape the two pieces into rectangles measuring appx. 8″ x 10″ (yes, I should have flunked geometry!) -
Fold the two top corners toward the center:
…and then begin gently rolling the dough into a log shape:
This is what you should end up with. Put the seam side down, and tuck the ends underneath.
Transfer the two loaves onto a baking sheet onto which you previously sprinkled cornmeal:
Cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap and let rise one hour; (pre-heat your oven to 500°F at the 45 minute mark) then use a single edge razor blade or very sharp paring or chef’s knife to cut a 1/2″ deep slit lengthwise in each loaf, stopping and starting about 2″ from the ends of the loaf:
Oven pre-heated? Great! Bake for 10 minutes at 500°F; turn loaves 180° (rotate baking sheet one half turn) and lower heat to 400°F. Bake for another 30 minutes until loaves are a deep golden brown. Interior temperature should be ~210°F. When thumped on its bottom, a properly baked loaf should sound hollow.
Here are the two loaves shown above, in the same orientation as the earlier photo. These loaves measured about 4½” high and about 11″ long. Finally, here’s a shot of the interior of one of the loaves (click for a close-up) -
Eat with a little butter, some quality parmigianno-reggiano or of course your favorite pasta dish – it’s wonderful! Wrap a loaf tightly in aluminum foil and freeze it – it’ll keep for months. Best of all, there are no preservatives and each slice – assuming a loaf yields about 20 half inch thick slices – should only be worth about 50 calories.
But that’s a secondary issue – it’s all about the taste and texture, both of which are first rate with this bread.
The recipe is originally from Cook’s Illustrated, with a few minor tweaks to make it a bit simpler. You can view a reproduction of the original recipe at: www.cookography.com/2008/rustic-italian-bread. This version at Cookography includes illustrations of how to fold the dough mixture as described above.
Capture a little magic by making your own bakery-style Italian bread – if I can do it, you certainly can! Enjoy!
March 15/09 update:
Some things come and go, but this isn’t one of them; this bread has become a staple at our home. My interest in making my own Italian bread stemmed not only from Perreca’s but as well from the bread my wife’s paternal grandmother made decades ago. The Boss never did get the recipe from her Nana (most weren’t written down anyway) and I’ve longed for similar bread ever since she passed on.
If Pat has asked, “Are you SURE there’s nothing other than flour, water and yeast in this recipe?” once, she’s asked me 50 times. About a week ago she declared it better than her Nana’s (heresy, I know) and has mentioned how delicious it is numerous times. It’s good stuff.
A few additional thoughts about the recipe:
- Use quality bread flour. I’ve been using King Arthur bread flour after using one of the “major” brands (Gold Medal) and I think it’s a significant part of why the bread is so delicious
- The recipe may seem rigorous and complicated. It’s not, really – it just requires some time. I’ve found it to be forgiving in actual practice: I’ve started the biga the same day as baking, for instance; I’ve skimped a bit on the 3rd rise, and so forth – the bread always comes out well. Having said this, recognize: for best results, follow the instructions as written
- When you bake it, after the initial 10 minutes rotate the loaves 180°, lower the temp to 400°F, shut the oven door and don’t open it for 30 minutes! Looking at the bread while it’s baking (hard not to admire it, but don’t!) doesn’t help anything
- If you want an even crunchier crust, when the 30 minutes is up turn the oven off, prop the door open a bit, and leave the loaves in the oven for another 10 minutes or so
- If you’re using a KitchenAid stand mixer, cut the kneading times in half. I usually just run the KA on the lowest speed when kneading
Enjoy – and if you try the recipe, let me know how you make out!
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