“You can’t bake bread if it’s raining.”
Three years ago when I had just gotten to Italy and Marco and I had just met, he told me this as if it was the eleventh commandment.
For me it was something new – I had considered weather influencing bread about as much as I had ever considered baking bread. That is, not at all. For Marco it was a well-lived fact, one he learned with love and experience from his great-aunt who lived with them and apparently often baked bread.
Now, three years later Marco and I were celebrating our first-ever Valentine’s day as a married couple at a cooking class, Pasta and Pane (bread), in a tiny room with other awkward couples and a chef telling us: “You can’t bake bread if it’s raining.”
Apparently, the weather interferes with the yeast and the bread doesn’t rise well. See, like with most things in Italy, baking bread seems to be a sort of art – a chemistry-inspired, superstitious art. Luckily for us it was a relatively sunny day (the first one in months!) and not raining at the moment.
With different stations throughout the room, we watched others prepare grissini with dried tomatoes, traditional french baguettes, bread al latte (made with milk) and rolls with dried figs and cranberries. Our station was sweet bread with chocolate chunks – my favorite!
After everything is measured out and ready, you pour the flour out in front of you, making a ring of flour that is large enough so that the liquid won’t overflow. Melting the yeast into the water with a bit of sugar, you then pour the mixture in the middle of the ring of flour, mixing with your fingertips and slowly adding in more and more flour.
Add flour as necessary and eventually that gloopy, strange mixture will start to adhere and a ball of dough will form. Since our particular bread was sweet, we didn’t add salt but butter and chocolate instead (like I said, my kind of bread!) Then continue to knead the dough until all the flour on the table is inside and there are as few veins and cracks in the loaf as possible.
We put it in a bowl with some flour so it wouldn’t stick and covered it with plastic wrap, keeping it warm for about 15 minutes to allow the yeast to activate. After, we took it out, formed it into little rolls and put it in the oven at 50 degrees Celsius (about 120 Fahrenheit) for 25 minutes.
After letting it sit for another 30 minutes or so, we put it back in the oven at about 425 degrees F for 10 minutes, lowering it to 350 for another 20.
Also, chef told us to leave the oven door open slightly during the process – I can’t remember why but that’s what he said. … sorry.
In the end we had delicious bread to eat to our stomach’s content!
Our bread turned out well, but more importantly we learned a lot about time, temperatures and how to properly tell if bread is done. (You have to push into the center from the bottom, the top forms too hard of a crust and it will trick you into thinking it is done).
Afterward, we all mixed and rolled out our own pasta, cutting it into whatever shape and size we wanted. While bread is a bit finicky, pasta is much easier.
It didn’t take long to realize that all those things we simply “get from the grocery store” are usually made here: tortilla’s, pancakes, taco seasoning mix. Any foreign food is best made by hand in Italy. And though pasta and bread are here in abundance, it was fun learning how to make it by hand, holding each strand of homemade pasta like I was a 65 year-old woman from Puglia (see here).
I’ve accumulated a lot of little cooking hints during my time in Italy, whether through a class, a restaurant, my mother-in-law or a great aunt who I never even got the chance to meet. I’m definitely not an expert on pasta or pane now, but I can’t wait for the first sunny day to practice my bread baking!
In the meantime, we can all perfect our pasta making:
– 400 grams of flour grano tenero di tipo 00 – This means that it is the finest milled flour and is the best for making bread, but most American recipes simply call for all-purpose flour, so go for it!
– 4 Eggs
1) Pour your sifted flour onto a clean tabletop, forming a large circle with your hands (as seen above).
2) Add your eggs into the middle, being careful that they don’t flow out of the ring of flour.
3) Begin to mix the egg into the flour ring with your hands, adding more flour slowly and as needed until it is all mixed up.
4) Knead as necessary for around 15 minutes, mixing all the egg and flour and adding just a bit more egg if absolutely necessary (if the dough is too dry or won’t collect the remaining flour – you can also add just a bit of water, but it often makes the dough harder)
5) Place ball in a bowl (with some flour on the bottom so that it doesn’t stick) and cover with plastic wrap. Allow it to rest for at least an hour. In this way it will be much easier to roll it out because it loses elasticity after resting.
6) Place ball on a flour-covered countertop and roll out with a rolling pin until very thin.
7) Fold both sides in half way (See photo) and cut as desired.
8) Cover with Semolina flour then cook like normal pasta