Crusty, Saltless Tuscan Bread

It was a good day to bake bread: drizzly, cold, overcast, and too miserable to be outdoors. The recipe turned out to be ideal for making while I was getting some other stuff done. Like many breads, you get it started; then it sits around, like overnight, while you do something else, like sleep; then you add flour or knead it, then it sits around again for a while as you wash dishes, take out trash, or read email; then you make it into loaves, and wait yet again while it rises, and so on. It takes a long time, but you don’t have to watch it every minute.

LeonNa Gilbert, who reads this column online in Fayettevilla, Arkansas, had written to say, that while she had a lot of bread recipes, she was missing one for Tuscan bread, which she likes, and buys at her grocery store, but would like to be able to make for herself. So I asked, and you responded.

Barbara Elward of Mattawamkeg wrote to say how much she likes this bread because it is salt-free and she has to watch her salt intake.

One explanation for no salt is that Tuscans use this bread with all kinds of savory and salty foods like prosciutto and sausages, and that they like to dip it in spicy stews, so it is perfectly unobtrusive. I asked Mediterranean Diet Cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives in Camden and in Tuscany, what she thought, and she replied that Tuscans are proud that their bread has no salt, for which there may be several explanations. “My own explanation is that Tuscans are like New Englanders in their sobriety, and they leave the salt out because the bread lasts longer, and can be used when it is raffermo (meaning firmed up, rather than stale) for any number of soups (ribollita), and brushette, (which we call crostini), and other thrifty practices–panzanella, Tuscan bread salad.”

Barbara Elward had turned to the King Arthur Flour company website for her recipes, and Barbara Kelley in Orland did, too. If you don’t know about it, and like to look online for baking recipes, you will love this website: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/. Charles Veeder in Old Town sent me instructions he found in Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.

Flour, water, and yeast are all you need. My yeast is a little weak-kneed at the moment, so I doubled the amount in the sponge, and used less in the second step. Otherwise, trust the recipe: it really doesn’t need more than one-quarter teaspoon of yeast. The sponge is a kind of yeast garden where you grow more. Additionally, the yeast works on the gluten to improve the texture. Try to get organized enough to set it up for an overnight rising; or start very early in the morning before you go to work.

Tuscan bread ready for second rising.

Keep it sticky when you knead it; I use a dough scraper to scoop it up off the board, so I don’t have to use so much flour. Somebody once told me that well-kneaded dough should feel like a baby’s bottom. I also do a poke test: jab my finger in it, and if the dough springs back, I figure it is sufficiently kneaded.

For the final rising, I put the loaf on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. You can use a baking stone, if you have one, and a peel, if you are deft enough to slide it on without deflating the loaf.

Loaf formed and ready for final rising.

It is wonderfully crusty as long as you observe the advice to spray a mist of water into the oven during the first bit of baking time. I have also tossed an ice cube or two on the floor of the oven to achieve the same effect. Since we now have a loaf of Tuscan bread in the house, and it is a big one, I think I will let it get raffermo and try out one of the things to do with old bread. I’ll share it with you next week.

Tuscan Bread

Sponge

¼ teaspoon dry yeast

2/3 cup warm water

1 1/3 cups flour

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let stand for about ten minutes. Add it to the flour, beat for a minute, then cover and let it stand overnight, or at least six to seven hours.

Bread

1 ¼ teaspoon yeast

1/3 cup warm water

1 cup room temperature water

3 ¾ cups flour

When you are ready to assemble the loaf, dissolve the yeast in the warm water as for the sponge. Add it plus the room temperature water to the sponge, and beat well together. Add the flour, and mix until all the flour is absorbed. Turn out on a very lightly floured board, and knead until it is smooth and elastic. Turn into an oiled bowl, and let rise for an hour or until doubled in size.

Turn it gently onto a lightly flour board, but do not punch it down. Form a round loaf by tucking the edges under the loaf all around the perimeter until is perfectly smooth on top. Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal, and place the loaf on it; or, if you use a baking stone, put the loaf on a piece of parchment paper sprinkled with corn meal.

When the loaf is doubled, after about an hour, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Slash the top with a razor or very sharp knife in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Put the loaf into the oven and mist with water about every five minutes during the first fifteen. Reduce the temperature to 400 degrees and bake another twenty-five minutes. The bread is done when it is evenly golden and sounds hollow when you tap it.

Makes one large loaf.

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About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.