Beer. Birra. Ale. Porter. Micro-brew. Home Brew. Brewer’s Festivals. My son brings me bottles of his first batch of home brew: a smoked chocolate concoction that is intriguingly flavorful. Beer is hot these days. The only thing missing is a beer movie that can make beer drinking chic instead of synonymous with college keg parties.
Even though, I’m not a beer drinker, I have found a great use for beer: it goes into my bread dough. The bread comes out with a crackling crust and an incredible foamy head. OK, you got me, my bread doesn’t really have a foamy head; it’s just good bread.
700 g bread flour
600 g mother (starter)
50 g rye, whole wheat or spelt flour
Combine the bread & rye flour in a bowl where your mother has been resting and allowed to come to room temperature. A mother is the ferment, or natural yeast dough starter that contains the yeast you need for this bread. For me, the mother is the heart of the bread, it gives it character and attitude. Not unlike what my flesh and blood mother gave me.
Using either a bread scraper (soft flexible piece of plastic) or a knife, cut the mother up into small chunks, incorporating the dry flour. When you’ve gotten to the point where the mother isn’t one big clump, add the ale, then start adding the water until you get the bread fully hydrated. Add the ale or beer first because that is a consistent measure, whereas the final quantity of water added will be dependant on how your bread dough feels. You want it loose enough to knead, but it should be a sticky mass when you turn the dough out onto the table to knead. Yes, knead your bread. It’s good for the mind, body and soul to knead bread, skipping this step is like sex without foreplay. You get to the end result, but without the fun part.
Do not add flour to the bread, and do not flour the table. Just start kneading. One of the wonderful things about this bread is how quickly it will come together, which I believe is a factor of using a mother and beer; they just start having fun together right away. After about 5 minutes of kneading, the bread will come cleanly away from the table and it is time to add the salt. I slap the bread down on the table and gently spread it out, then layer the salt on and roll it up and continue kneading for another 5 minutes or so. You’ll literally feel the dough come alive in your hands, and once you can no longer feel any salt crystals and the bread is bouncy in your fingers, make it into a ball and place in a clean bowl. Cover the bowl with a cotton or linen towel, place in a warm spot in the kitchen and let it rest and rise for a good hour or so. After the hour, give it a turn in the bowl (expose the bottom side of the ball to the air), cover and let rest for about 2 hours. At this point it’s time to shape the loaf into any size that warms your heart: long baguette, round boule, or regular slicing loaf. Turn the oven on as hot as it will get, and let the bread rise again as the oven warms. I aim for about 500F, which takes about ½ hour with my oven.
If you bake bread often, then you probably have a stone and know what you are doing at this point. If you are a novice, place the loaves on a good cookie sheet that has been lined with oven paper (carta al forno as we say here in the old country, it’s that white paper that comes in rolls and you bake on it. I honestly forget what its called in the States….!). I don’t have a stone here in Italy, so I use the baking sheet method and I get good bread, so don’t get all twitchy if you don’t have a stone. But, you do need a water spritzer bottle. Spritz the bread dough before it goes into the oven and before you slash the loaf, spritz the pan, give the bread a good dousing. This helps to create that crackling crust. Slash the bread to give it some breathing space and quickly get it into the oven. I mean quick. Don’t keep the oven door open a second longer than you have to. Wait 3-4 minutes, crack the oven door open and spritz everything all over, avoiding the light bulb in the back of the oven.
Let the loaf bake for about 20 minutes, then rotate the pan, spritz and reduce the heat to around 400F and bake until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when you knock on it. Let cool for at least an hour, then eat! Would probably taste great with a hearty cheddar cheese and a nice glass of home brew, but, I know it tastes great with some parmigiana and a glass of red wine.