This moment, I had known it would come.
The one where I’m sitting on the floor of my smoke-filled apartment, staring at three rock-hard, blackened loaves and thinking, “I am a failure.”
Having never baked bread before, I’d known it was a little insane to sign up for the weekly Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge, where a group of more than 200 amateur bakers around the world bake a bread every week from a recipe in Peter Reinhart’s bread-making bible.
I started to get cocky — I even promised chef Simpson that I would bring my first stab at ciabatta to his July 4 party. There would be two Italians there — who better to judge the quality of my first Italian bread?
Of course, this was all before the alarming amounts of smoke, the smell of burnt cornmeal seeping into every cranny of my apartment and, eventually, the surfacing of three dark lumps of what could pass for coal but were actually my “ciabatta.”
It had all begun promisingly enough.
On the first day, I prepared the poolish, a sponge that’s meant to give a bread more complexity of flavor. You basically take bread flour and a bit of instant yeast …
… and mix in some room temperature water to create a watery dough.
Then you let it sit for a few hours before sticking it into the fridge to rest overnight.
The next day, things got crazy.
I’d volunteered to bring desserts for Simpson’s party — I’d made lemon-thumbprint cookies the night before and was planning to whip together a strawberry rhubarb pie using a recipe that Haley, a fellow baking group cook had suggested. When the guest list grew a little, I decided to add a coconut-lime cake to the lineup.
Two desserts and ciabatta? I’d churned out far more on Thanksgivings and Christmases past. This would be nothing. I thought.
I mixed together more bread flour, salt and instant yeast …
After letting the poolish warm up for an hour, I added it, together with a bit of water and extra-virgin olive oil, to the bread-flour mix to create a dense dough. I then took the dough out for some stretching and folding to form a rectangle.
Ciabatta, which means “carpet slipper” in Italian, is supposed to look like a slipper. I wasn’t seeing the resemblance yet. (I confess, I also wasn’t entirely sure what an Italian carpet slipper really looked like.)
But, ever positive, I took this rectangle to be a promising beginning.
After letting it rest for a while, I stretched and folded it again and let it rest again. Then, I divided the dough into three portions, letting it rest for a bit on a handy kitchen towel that had to stand in for the canvas “couche” cloths that hardcore bread bakers use to create crusty breads.
Then, things started to go awry.
Between the chopping of rhubarb, the grating of limes and the baking of shredded coconut, I’d skimmed over the last bit of the ciabatta recipe.
The hard parts — the stretching, the folding, the cutting, the rising — I’d believed they were over. Now, I thought, all I had to do was lay the loaves on a bed of cornmeal, stick them into the oven and wait for the amazing smell of baked bread to wash over me.
But first, I had to turn my oven into a makeshift hearth, setting it to a whopping 500 degrees and creating a steam bath for my bread. It turned out I also had to open the oven periodically to squirt water into the air to generate more steam.
I began to be afraid.
Steam filled my oven, meaning I couldn’t see a thing. Filling a turkey baster with hot water, I blindly stabbed at the dark, misty air, managing to shoot water all over my bread and cornmeal.
I could immediately hear and smell the cornmeal starting to sizzle. Smoke began filling my apartment, gradually getting denser. At one point, a plastic tub of turmeric I had perched on the top of my stove dashboard actually popped and began to melt. It was that hot.
At 30 minutes, my bread looked well baked. But I’d thought the recipe said to let it go longer.
A baker on Twitter offered some sage words: “Don’t go by clock, go by the loaf!”
So, out the bread came:
We didn’t know what to say.
Mike picked up the recipe and said, “Hey, did you lower the temperature to 450 degrees after the last 30 seconds?”
What was he talking about? But then the words sank in.
First, I’d missed the lowering part. Second, in my rhubarb-chopping fog, I’d registered it as minutes instead of seconds.
There was a long silence.
Well, unless you count the words “COLOSSAL FAILURE” that kept ringing through my head.
After many more silent minutes, I decided to cut one loaf open — actually, from the sound of my bread knife on the stony ciabatta, it was more like madly chisel it open.
On the inside, there wasn’t any of the holey perfection that ciabatta usually has. But it wasn’t horrible, all things considered. In fact, except for the crust, it was edible — well, if you like bad bread — which was amazing considering I’d baked it for more than four times longer than I should have.
(I know, I do like making excuses for myself.)
“You take on too much,” Mike said after inspecting my ciabatta.
And he was right. One dessert and ciabatta probably would have been fine. Beyond that, I was just being delusional in believing that I could do it all.
When the loaves first came out, I’d vowed to immediately give the recipe another go, hoping to be able to get it right just once before Monday.
But Mike’s words stuck. I’d already had a full Sunday planned. There was laundry, there was work, there was reading to be done.
Throwing in an unplanned ciabatta? Talk about tossing a massive, potentially fire-inducing, wrench into the plans. With the scent of smoke still in the air, I had more than ample evidence of the lesson I just learned.
Someday, I’ll try to make ciabatta again. It’ll be a day when I have no plans, no cooking, no desserts to make.
Just me, some bread flour, a turkey baster — and hours and hours of emptiness before me.
Unlike me, other Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge bakers managed to produce beautiful-looking ciabatta. Check some out here:
Carolyn at Two Skinny Jenkins
Chris at Eating Is The Hard Part
Dianne at A Stove With a House Around It
Paula at Bell’Alimento
Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups