Pane Rustico: Italian Peasant Bread

This recipe is a modification of a recipe by Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery, NYC, which appeared in the NYTimes in November 2006.

Anyone who has lived in or traveled to Italy or southern France has experienced the wonderful bread which is the staple of the people of the countryside.  It is crusty and crunchy on the surface, and the interior has large holes, is translucent and yellowish, and is chewy.  It is a bread that makes you know you are eating real food!  During a sabbatical in a rural neighborhood near Naples, Italy (on Via Romano), this bread was not only the staple in the local bakery, but also baked by our friend Louisa in the outdoor wood-fired brick oven of the extended family with which we lived.

This is our personal experience with “Peasant Bread:” Pane Rustico.  For us, the name is deceptively modest.  In fact, this bread is worthy of wonder and respect, for making it is a practical art evolved from many centuries by people who have lived close to the earth, and developed extraordinary culinary skills.
The following recipe comes as close to replicating this marvelous bread as any we have found (after a 15 year search!).  Try it first with while flour (as below), then try the Whole Wheat/White Flour version.  The whole wheat version is nearly as light and crunchy, but also bears some of the vitamins, quality protein, and roughage removed from while flour products.

Supplies:

3 cups white enriched flour
1 1/2 cups fresh water, warmed to 90 F
1 tsp Kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon active yeast
cornflour or additional flour for dusting dough and cloth

Equipment:

1 gallon pot or mixing bowl with cover
measuring cups (one pint and one quart)
measuring spoons (1/4 and 1 teaspoons)
whisk
dish towel, non-terry cloth
heavy 1-2 gallon covered cast iron pot (Dutch oven)
cooling rack

Procedure:

Pane Rustico Recipe, Whole Wheat/White Flour

 

While the white flour pane rustico is delicious, we are concerned about the loss of nutrients and fiber. So we replaced some of the white flour with whole wheat. We tried 100% whole wheat and were not happy with is density, stickiness and flavor. So we experimented and came up with a compromise in which we use 2 cups of whole wheat and 3-4 of cups white unbleached flour.

INGREDIENTS:
24 ounces of water (or occasionally whey from making cheese…), 100 F, 37 C
1 tablespoon salt (I use Kosher salt these days)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon granulated baker’s yeast
2 cups whole wheat flour in a medium sized bowl, on a balance… if you have one.

add enough white all purpose (unbleached if you can find it) to total 2 lbs 2 oz flour (about 3.5 to 4 cups white flour)

 

Assemble ingredients. Dissolve one tablespoon salt to 24 ounces of warmed water. Pour out 1/4 cup of warmed water.

 

Add 1/4 tsp sugar and 1/4th teaspoon baker’s yeast to warmed water, stir to suspend.  Let sit 15 minutes.

 

The glass to the left is freshly prepared, the one on the right is proofed for 15 minutes. Note foam which has formed = “proofed.”  Add the proofed yeast to the rest of the warmed, salted water.

 

Sift flours before adding to the warmed water: Add 2 cups sifted whole wheat flour, whisk in. Add 3 cups sifted white flour, stir in to mix with a whisk. Then add more white flour with a wooden spoon until the dough is moderately stiff, but still soft.

 

Note that the dough is more like stiff batter. If it is too liquid, add more flour. Scrape down the sides, cover, let sit at room temp (above 68 F) overnight.

 

The next morning, the dough/batter will be bubbly. The middle picture shows a closeup. Turn out on a floured surface. Note how sticky…

 

Fold over several times with a floured hand. (Resist the “need to knead”. Less kneading makes the holes larger and the crumb more delicate.) Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.

 

Dust with sifted cornmeal or rolled oats, move to the side.  Dust a cloth liberally with cornmeal (or rolled oats), transfer dough, cover with cloth.  Recently, I have been using rolled oats to prevent sticking.  They work and look GREAT (see below)
Let rise until doubled, about 2-3 hours.  When risen, preheat to 450 F with the Dutch oven and its lid in the heating up oven.

 

When oven is fully preheated, carefully remove HOT Dutch oven, gently transfer risen dough by turning over into the Dutch oven.  In the three images above, I am using my beautiful Le Creuset (gift) Dutch oven (red). Note also that I am using rolled oats as a coating, Gently shake the Dutch oven if the dough needs evening out. (Don’t worry if it is a bit raggedy.) Cut a cross into the dough before baking.

 

Cover with the hot lid, place in the 450 F oven, set timer for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the lid, bake for another 15 minutes at 450 F to brown.

 

After 15 more minutes, the bread is done.
The second image is a loaf rolled in oats and a cross cut into the loaf before baking.
The right hand image is what it looks like after cooling slightly and cutting one end off. Cut off one of the ends and eat it immediately. Crunchy, YUM.