I was always told that the first sighting of a robin red breast meant that spring was on the way. That may well have been true in the mountainous desert climate where I grew up, but I was puzzled when I moved to the temperate Northwest to see robins year round.
Around here, the real harbinger of spring pokes it's little head out as soon as the first green shoots struggle out of the ground. And it eats them. The Northwest harbinger of spring is not a groundhog or a robin, it's a slug. Planting dainty, little starter plants in the ground is the same thing as putting peanuts in a squirrel feeder. It's the dinner bell ringing for the slugs.
Frankly, slugs creep me out. They're slimy, oozy, and disgusting. Sure they might be just what an old-growth forest needs to help break down the detritus, which is why they grow up to a foot long there, but seriously, what higher purpose is served by my lettuce being eaten for me? I suppose that leaves me more room for dessert, but I'm still not going to thank the slugs.
Recently I've been on a bread baking binge. Inspired by the fun of making the French bread, I somewhat randomly decided to make ciabatta bread. It was a whim, a no pressure situation, so I just had fun with it.
Ciabatta dough is wet. None of the "knead and add flour till it's smooth as a baby's bum" here. This dough has to be handled with care so that the big bubbles that develop during the rising are preserved. I always got graded down in home-ec because my muffins had tunnels, and now I want big bubbles. Hmmm.
I made my ciabatta and as the loaves sat on the counter cooling I thought how much they looked like slugs. When my daughter, who sees life in the same humorously twisted way that I do, came in, she thought of slugs, as well. So we dressed up this guy and named him Horace. Terry Pratchett fans will understand why.
Although I was initially disappointed in how flat the bread turned out, I decided that's pretty much how it's meant to be. And of all the slugs I've eaten, (none), this is by far the most delicious. It has a nice crust to crumb ratio and is chewy without causing the gums to bleed. And with bowls of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip the bread in, my family ate it all in under two days.
adapted from Bread, by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno
for the starter-
1/2 tsp dry yeast
2/3 cup water
3 tbsp millk
1/4 tsp honey or sugar
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp bread flour
for the dough-
1/2 tsp dry yeast
1 cup water
1/2 tbsp olive oil
2-1/2 cups bread flour
1-1/2 tsp salt
1- To make the starter - sprinkle the yeast into the water and milk in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes, then add the honey or sugar and stir to dissolve.
2- Mix in the flour to form a loose, smooth batter. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let rise for 12 hours or overnight. In the morning it should be full of bubbles.
3- To make the dough - sprinkle the yeast into the water in a small bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve. Add the dissolved yeast and olive oil to the starter and mix well.
4- Mix in the flour and salt to form a wet, sticky dough. Beat steadily with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes. If you have growing children, give them a turn to help build strong muscles. Plus it will give your weary arm a rest. The dough will become springy and start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, but will remain too soft to knead.
5- Cover the dough with a dish towel and place the bowl in a warm spot; about 70 degrees is good. Let rise until tripled in size and full of air bubbles, about 3 hours. Do not punch down the dough. Generously flour two baking sheets and have ready extra flour to dip your hands in.
6-Use a dough scraper to divide the dough in half while in the bowl. Scoop half the dough out of the bowl onto one of the heavily floured baking sheets. I used a rubber spatula to help scrape the dough out. This is the part where you need to be particularly careful to not pop those beautiful bubbles that have formed.
7 - Use well-floured hands to pull and stretch the dough to form a roughly rectangular loaf, about 12 inches long. Dust the loaf and your hands again with flour. Neaten and plump up the loaf by running your fingers down each side and gently tucking under the edges of the dough.
8 - Repeat step 7 with the other half of the dough. Leave the two loaves uncovered to proof for about 20 minutes; the loaves will spread out as well as rise. Preheat your oven to 425 deg. F. with racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
9- Place the baking sheets in the preheated oven. You can use a water misting bottle to spray mist into the oven against the oven walls to create a nice, steamy environment to help the bread rise. This is optional. Bake for 30 minutes until the bread is risen, golden, and hollow sounding when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack.