This week, Florentines celebrate the feast day of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of cooks. The tradition of preparing salt-free bread in Tuscany doubtless developed at a time when there was an acute shortage of salt, after which people became accustomed to the bland flavor of pane sciocco (SHOW-ko). It’s amusing that sciocco also means foolish or “good for nothing” in Italian. This is the bread traditionally used for panzanella, Tuscan bread and tomato salad, and pappa al pomodoro, Tuscan bread and tomato soup. Also popular for panini, salt free bread marries well with the salty cured meats that are often used in panini fillings.
This type of bread is normally prepared using a firmer Italian style pre-ferment called a biga. I find that a more liquid poolish does the job just as well.
Makes one 9- or 10-inch round loaf
1/2 cup/75 grams room temperature tap water, about 75°F
1/4 teaspoon/.75 grams fine granulated active dry or instant yeast
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon/75 grams unbleached bread flour
1 cup/225 grams room temperature tap water, about 75°F
1 teaspoon/3 grams fine granulated active dry or instant yeast
1 teaspoon malt syrup, optional
2 3/4 cups/360 grams bread flour
One heavy cookie sheet or pizza pan dusted with cornmeal, plus a spray bottle filled with warm water
- For the poolish, whisk the water and yeast together in a small bowl. Stir in the flour until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let ferment at room temperature until more than doubled in bulk, about 4 hours.
- For the dough, pour the water into the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk in the yeast. Wait 30 seconds and whisk again; whisk in the malt syrup, if using. Use a rubber spatula to stir in the poolish, followed by the flour. Make sure all the flour is mixed and there isn’t any on the sides of the bowl.
- Place the bowl on the mixer and attach the dough hook. Mix on lowest speed until the dough comes together around the dough hook, 1 to 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and pull the dough away from the hook; let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
- Increase the mixer speed to low/medium and mix until the dough is smoother and more elastic, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Scrape the dough into an oiled bowl and turn it over so that the top is oiled. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough ferment until it starts to puff, about 30 minutes.
- Scrape the dough to a floured work surface, flour your hands, and pull the dough into a rough rectangle. Fold the two sides in to overlap at the middle, then roll the top toward you, jelly-roll style. Invert, flatten, and repeat. Let the dough ferment until it has fully doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes longer.
- To shape the dough into a loaf, use a flexible plastic scraper to slide it from the bowl, right side up, to a floured work surface; try to keep from deflating the dough. Round the loaf by pushing against the bottom of the dough all around with the sides of your hands held palms upward. The dough will quickly form an even sphere. Place the dough on the prepared pan and cover it loosely with a flat-weave towel or piece of sprayed or oiled plastic wrap. Let the dough rest until it starts to puff again, about 30 minutes. As soon as you cover the loaf, set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 450˚F.
- Once the dough is proofed to about 50% larger than its original size, flour the palms of your hands and gently press to flatten it to about 1 inch thick. Use an X-Acto knife or single-edge razor blade to cut a slash across the diameter of the loaf and then generously spray it with water. Place the pan in the oven.
- Wait 5 minutes, open the oven, and spray the loaf again, then reduce the oven temperature to 425˚F.
- Bake the loaf until it is well risen and deep golden and the internal temperature reads 200°F on an instant read thermometer, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool the loaf on a rack.