This recipe came to me from my mother who received it from my cousin Carlotta many years ago. I make it once a week and store it in the freezer so it is always fresh.
La Pagnotta or Pane Rustico
This particular type of bread can be found in many towns, cities and regions of Italy, particularly in and around Rome, moving south towards Naples. It is very similar to the kind of rustic bread we used to eat at our summer home on the beach in Terracina, halfway between Rome and Naples. My mother used to buy several kilos of pagnotte every day and we teenagers would go through the whole lot of it.
Biga (Bread Sarter)
Using the biga as a starter not only makes the bread tastier with a slightly sour dough flavor, but it also gives the heft and sturdiness characteristic of this type of bread. The biga not only enhances the flavor of the wheat, but also makes the bread last longer.
I generally always use unbleached organic flour such as Central Milling Company, but I have used other brands in the past.
I always use a Kitchen Aid mixer to make all bread and pizza doughs. I begin with the paddle attachment and then I exchange it for the dough hook as I add flour.
¼ cup warm water
½ tsp. dry yeast
Dissolve the yeast in warm water. I sprinkle a pinch of sugar on the yeast just to get it yeast going. Let it sit until frothy, about 10 minutes. Then add:
1 ¼ cup + 2 Tbls cold water
3 ¾ cups unbleached flour
Stir in the flour one cup at a time until it is well blended and forms a sticky ball. Scoop it up and place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it sit for 6-24 hours, even 48. It will rise, turn frothy, then eventually settle a bit. I then divide it into five parts (it will be very sticky) and place it on plastic wrap squares I cut ahead of time. Wrap the biga into 5 little packets and place in the freezer. When you are ready to use it, take it out of the freezer and let it defrost on the counter. You can of course use the biga right away, but there is no difference in quality between the fresh and the defrosted. If you don’t want to freeze the biga, you can continue to refresh it by adding water and flour.
Pane – The Bread
¼ warm water
1 ¼ tsp dry yeast or one packet
3 cups cold water
1 biga (one packet)
7 ½ cups unbleached flour or more if needed
1 Tbl + 1 tsp salt
Begin the usual way, by dissolving the dry yeast in warm water (sprinkle a little sugar to get it going). Let it stand for 10 minutes until frothy, then add the cold water. Start the paddle of the mixer. Add 2 cups of flour, then the salt. add the biga. It will be sticky, but the motion of the paddle will loosen it up. Continue mixing and add the rest of the flour, one cup at a time. When I have added 5 cups of flour, I switch to the dough hook because the mixture is much thicker. Keep adding another 2-2 ½ cups of flour until the dough looks fairly well-blended. Turn it out on a floured surface and continue to knead it until it is fairly smooth. I add more flour if needed, but the dough will be a little wetter or stickier than most. Form a ball and place it in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place. Sometimes it takes a couple of hours, sometimes more or less. Once the dough has risen nicely, turn it out on a floured surface. Do not punch down. Carefully split the dough into 2 and form two round loaves or balls. Be careful not to handle the bread too much. Let rise for another hour (I have waited less time when I am in a hurry). Preheat the oven to 425 (I bake mine at 400 because that’s how hot my oven is. Judge what works best for you). While it is preheating, also preheat a baking stone or baking sheet. I use a roasting pan with shallow sides. Place the rounds on the hot baking sheet/pan (I place mine close together so they touch as they bake – then I break them apart when they come out of the oven) and bake for 50-60 minutes or until the bread looks crusty and brown. It should sound hollow when you tap it. Let cool on rack. I usually cut the loaves in half and wrap each in foil. These loaves freeze very well.
Experiment with flour. I tried using a combination of wheat, bran, and ground flax.
Make focaccia and pizza with this dough…it gives a lovely flavor and crunch.