Earlier this week, I walked into a friend’s house to find a beautiful loaf of bread resting on her kitchen counter. “What is that?” I asked, with the particular tone of voice that I suppose many women (if I’m to believe the televison commercials) reserve for jewelry, shoes and chocolate. Knowing that my friend shares, and to be completely honest, exceeds my own obsession with and knowledge of the complicated art of baking bread, I assumed there was something to be excited about.
The loaf was a pane rustico, baked according to the incredibly easy directions provided by Dr. David B. Fankhauser, a professor of biology and chemistry who shares chemically and biologically informed insight about the making of cheese, the baking of bread, and occasionally, the butchering of deer.
A few years ago, my husband and I purchased a state-of-the-art bread machine, recommended by my same bread-making friend. It was around that time that I began my quest for the perfect loaf of artisan bread, a quest that might have ended this weekend in the perfection of the pane rustico.
In the short number of years I’ve lived in Madison, the variety of amenities available to residents has increased exponentially. We now have sushi, locally brewed beer and a bookstore. But there’s nothing in Madison that quite compares to the fresh baked bread available in Louisville from places like the Blue Dog Bakery. And when you live an hour away, popping down to a bakery early enough in the morning to procure bread before it’s all run out is less than convenient, to say the least.
This increases your incentive to learn how to produce such bread yourself. If you’re someone who’s never actually tried to reproduce a loaf of artisan bread, you might think making a gorgeous, crusty, chewy French baguette or boule is a piece of cake. But let me tell you from long experience that it is not. Until Dr. David B. Fankhauser came along, that is.
The brown, chewy crust produced by professional bakeries like Blue Dog is a result of high moisture and steam. In fact, many industrial ovens have special steam-injecting apparatus that’s difficult to duplicate in a conventional oven. I’ve tried spritzing water in the oven, filling a pan with boiling water, and dropping a heated brick (yes, an actual brick) in a pan of water, all in attempts to replicate this industrial steam. My success with all these techniques has been limited and sporadic; sometimes it seems as if the less attention I pay to the bread, the better it turns out. But just when I think I’ve mastered a lovely French baguette, something changes and the next time I’m back to square one.
My husband and daughter love truly chewy bread–the kind of bread that helps dislodge loose teeth and that can send crumbs flying across the table in the physical effort it takes to eat. None of my attempts to date had quite replicated that level of chewiness, brick or no brick. Who knew the answer was a simple as a cast iron pan.
You can check out the full directions at Dr. David B. Fankhauser’s website, here, but in essence, the keys are a very wet dough that isn’t kneaded and a cast iron pan. Many artisan bread doughs like ciabatta are very wet and sticky, and this pane rustico is no exception. But do not be afraid of the wet and the sticky. Embrace the wet and sticky. And then throw it into a cast iron pan to bake and be done with it.
The cast iron pan traps the moisture needed to make the crust chewy and brown. It does so more effectively than any of the steam methods I’ve tried, and without the hassle of, say, heating bricks or opening the oven door every 20 seconds to spray water inside. I used our Le Creuset Dutch oven, but any cast iron pan with a lid should work.
If you’re a real fan of the crusty and the chewy, I might leave the bread in a bit longer than Dr. Fankhauser suggests. Also, don’t forget to add the salt, which though listed as an ingredient, is missing from the actual instructions. In fact, I’d add a little more salt, because salt makes everything taste better, and you would have to add a whole lot of salt to come close to the amount consumed in “industrial” food products. And remember that you need to start the bread the night before.
Then let the bread crumbs fly, because you’ll see some heavy-duty gnawing on this bread. And because the loaf looks so beautiful out of the oven, be sure no one makes the mistake of assuming you didn’t bake it yourself. “What is that?” they’ll ask.