When I was young and just arrived in the United States from Italy, my mother would bake homemade Italian bread every few days; just enough loaves so that the bread would still be fresh enough to eat until she made the next batch. Then, when the new loaves were made, what was left over from the previous batch was left out to dry for making breadcrumbs; nothing was wasted.
I lived in the small upstate city of Binghamton, NY and of course we had bakeries in our town that made “Italian” bread. But that Italian bread was for the “Merigan” who didn’t know any better, not for us. According to my mother, the bakery bread was “troppo molle ”, too soft and spongy. I always found it strange that for a city with so many Italians that you couldn’t find a bakery that made a decent loaf of Italian bread. But, not only did my mother bake bread, but also did the landlady downstairs and my aunt next door. My aunt seemed to bake bread everyday since she made it for herself, for her married daughter; as well as for her niece in the next apartment and for her niece upstairs. So I figured it had to be true about the bakeries; and with so much fresh bread baking everyday there was always that warm, wonderful yeasty aroma in the air.
As time went on, we moved out of center city away from the larger Italian population to the South Side where my parents bought a house. And, as it so often happens, life eventually got in the way. Now my mother had to work to help with the mortgage and couldn’t bake bread as often. Baking bread three times a week went to two, then to one and then to a couple of times per month, usually on a Saturday. We learned to like the local breads, but really looked forward to the “real bread” whenever Mom baked it.
In my mid-twenties I accepted a position to join a large Japanese company in the Meadowlands of Northern New Jersey, right on the door step of New York City! It was here that I discovered a whole new world of Italian bread. Here, there were “real” Italian bakeries everywhere, and the bread they made was unlike anything found in the Binghamton bakeries. There were ciabatta loaves and rolls, there were rings of ciambella, and there were big round or long loaves of pane casereccio! Wait a minute, pane casereccio? Homemade bread, how could this be, homemade bread from a bakery? But yes it was true. The breads in these bakeries were truly like homemade. The pane casereccio had a thick crunchy crust and the inside was moist and airy with big holes; and it was chewy, just like Mom’s.
But, there was more. Not only could I get pane casereccio from the Italian bakery, but also from “Italian Pork Stores”, which are super Italian delicatessens unlike anything I knew in Binghamton and are ubiquitous throughout the New York metropolitan area. The bread isn’t baked in these pork stores, but instead delivered fresh daily from bakeries on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx or other boroughs of New York City. Now, I didn’t have to wait to visit home for great bread, I could get some just few minutes from my apartment. The pork stores also provided me the benefit of “one stop shopping” for all my Italian staples. Now when I picked up my bread, I also was able to pickup a store made sopressata or some imported prosciutto; also some imported olive oil, cured olives and other “sottacetti” which are marinated or pickled vegetables. And, there was always fresh, store-made mozzarella to be bought. I was in young Italian bachelor heaven!
Eventually I married my wife Judy who is a wonderful cook and baker. We still live in the greater New York City area and have access to the great bakeries and pork stores. However, over the years Judy has herself perfected the art of making great breads, including pane casereccio. After trying several recipes and methods she hit upon one that is truly foolproof. Jim Lahey of The Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City developed a “no-kneading” method that produces a truly fantastic pane casereccio. While this recipe is simple it does take a long time to make, but the results are worth it.
As for making any great bread, the only ingredients needed are flour, water, yeast and salt. Of course you should use bread flour, which has high gluten content and helps produce a crunchy crust and a firm, moist crumb. Quality yeast is also very important and Judy prefers to use Red Star Platinum as it provides very consistent results (see their website for more information). However, the key to this method is to give the dough a very slow initial rise, overnight or longer, in a dark warm place. It seems that this step eliminates the need for kneading the dough. Finally, you’ll need a cast iron “Dutch oven”. Before adding the formed loaf, the Dutch oven is preheated in a hot oven, which, according to Lahey, recreates the conditions found inside a bakery oven. For this, Judy uses a red Le Creuset Dutch oven. The following recipe is Lahey’s nearly verbatim as far as I can tell, and is the recipe Judy used to produce the wonderful pane casereccio in the picture.
Note: Merigan (pronounced Meh-ree-gahn): An abbreviated form of “Americano” and Italian-American slang for non Italian-Americans without regard to actual ethnicity or race. For example, English, Irish, German, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, African-America etc. are all “Merigan”. It may be stated either matter-of-factly or pejoratively with contempt, depending on the context.
- 4 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus flour for dusting
- ½ teaspoon yeast
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups water at about 70°F
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (optional)
- Cornmeal as needed
- Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Add the water and stir until blended; you’ll have a shaggy, sticky dough (add a little more water if it seems dry).
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or put the olive oil in a second large bowl, transfer the dough to that, turn to coat with oil, and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for about 12-18 hours at about 70°F. The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Rising time will be shorter at warmer temperatures, a bit longer in cooler temperatures.
- Lightly flour a work surface, remove the dough, and fold once or twice; it will be soft but, once sprinkled with flour, not terribly sticky. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for about 15 minutes.
- Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a silicon baking mat or cotton towel (not terry cloth) with cornmeal; put the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with more flour or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it’s ready, the dough will be more than doubled in size and won’t spring back readily when poked with your finger.
- At least a half hour before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 450°F. Put a 4 or 5-quart cast iron, enameled Dutch oven with the cover on to heat. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up. (Slide your hand under the towel and just turn the dough over into the pot; it’s messy, and it probably won’t fall in artfully, but it will straighten out as it bakes.) Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. (If at any point the dough starts to smell scorched, lower the heat a bit.) Remove the bread with a spatula or tongs and cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing.
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