Sunday, August 18, 2013

One-handed Ciabatta

As you may have noticed if you have kept up with this blog for the past few months, it has taken me a long time to go back to baking after Noah died. I am not sure why really. The only explanation I can find is that I needed a little flame to keep going and the little flame was gone.
In early July, just as I was finally thinking of baking again (I had started a new levain, it was bubbling actively and I was planning to put it to the test), I broke my left wrist.
The levain went into the fridge and back we went to buying our bread (fortunately there are several excellent bakeries in Seattle) or eating the beautiful and tasty loaves that baker friends most kindly shared with us.
All these months I had never really missed baking but this time around I felt really frustrated. However there was not much I could do about it with a broken wrist, so at first I did nothing.
Then Sunday a week ago my hand turned a bit dusky and a bluish tinge started creeping down to my fingers. According to the discharge sheet we had been given, this was reason for concern. I called the hospital hotline. We were told to go to the emergency room immediately.
To make a long story short, the physician on guard cut my cast open to make it less tight and the following day, I got a brand-new one, a bit shorter at both ends than the previous one, which made it easier for me to fold my arm and move my fingers.
Now I know the surgeon had said yes to typing again and no to bread-mixing and DSLR-photography (see this post). But as it turned out, typing is actually not that comfortable (I can do it but it makes for swollen fingers) while a few other things come more easily: for instance, pinching and lifting small things between my fingers (the thumb still not opposable because the cast holds it back) or putting a tiny bit of weight on my arm. Plus when I spoke to the physical therapist who prescribed daily exercises, he basically told me to try and go back to what I loved without overdoing anything and to see how it went. Needless to say, that was music to my ears...
So a few days ago, I sat my baking self down for some hard thinking:
  • First the levain needed to come out of the fridge so that I could see what kind of a mood it was in. Fed once a day for a couple of days, it soon started bubbling again. I knew I would have no problem there
  • Then I looked at my brand-new cast. Hand-mixing was out of the question: not only did I have to keep the cast clean and dry but even if I managed to hold the bowl in the curve of my left arm, I couldn't overtax my right wrist (I have had problems with it in the past). Fortunately I have a Kitchen-Aid mixer. I resolved to use it
  • Shaping was next: there was no way I could shape a boule or a batard. But I could bake in a pan or I could bake a bread that required no shaping, such as a ciabatta. With Didier Rosada's All about ciabatta class fresh in my memory, I didn't want to bake in a pan. It had to be a ciabatta
  • Ciabattas have to proof right side down on a floured couche and need to be flipped floured side up for baking. The rod the surgeon put inside my arm goes from my elbow almost all the way up my hand to the beginning of my fingers. There is no way I can flip anything, not even a piece of paper. I would have to settle for proofing on parchment paper and baking wrong side up. The rod is coming out towards the end of September, so it was a temporary setback and hopefully not a major one. I decided to ignore it
  • Didier had shared several marvelous formulas with us but when I do make one of them, I want to report on it on this blog, including tips, photos, videos, etc. With typing setting my hand on fire (I am writing this in bits and pieces), I knew the longer post would have to wait. I had to devise my own ciabatta
  • Still of course I remembered what Didier said, how, in his own bakery, he likes to combine levain and poolish to add complexity to the dough and how much fun it was to just experiment. Taking stock of what I had at hand, I decided to go for teff, to use some whole wheat flour as well and to complement the flavor and texture with roasted sunflower seeds. I also decided to add water in two steps as he so brilliantly demonstrated
  • I knew that mixing and baking the ciabatta wouldn't be fun if I had to ask for help. So I made up the one and only rule: I had to manage by myself from A to Z, including handling the oven and cleaning up (even if I had to stick everything in the dishwasher, which I did). Hence the title of this post: one-handed ciabatta
It went way more smoothly that I thought it would. Cast in the supporting role (pun intended!), my left arm rose to the occasion. Believe it or not, the hardest part was setting the camera on the tripod for the post-baking shots. The one-handed smartphone shots were no problem.
The fragrance that wafted out of the oven during the baking was pure bliss and brought back happy memories.
But it wasn't until we cut open the first ciabatta (the proportions given below yield three) and I saw the tan color of the crumb that I knew why I had picked teff out of all the grains I stock in the fridge: last summer, when Noah, his mom and his sisters came to visit at our little camp by the river, I made several loaves of teff bread with flour a former colleague had brought back from Ethiopia. Noah liked it so much that he ate almost a full loaf by himself, without butter or jam or any other kind of topping. His bright and eager expression, the sheer joy on his face as he chewed will stay with me forever.
His memory had brought me back full-circle. A circle of love. And the little flame had been rekindled.
Ingredients (for 3 ciabattas)
  • 450 g unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 150 g whole-wheat flour
  • 150 g teff mash (75g teff flour + 75g water. See this recipe for mash explanation and how-to)
  • Water 1: 350 g
  • Water 2: 100 g
  • 80 g sunflower seeds, toasted and briefly soaked (water from that soaking is part of water 1)
  • 150 g ripe liquid levain (100% hydration)
  • 150 g ripe poolish (75 g flour + 75 g water + a pinch of instant yeast)
  • 18 g fine sea salt

Method (the ciabatta is made over two days)

The night before
  1. Feed the levain
  2. Prepare the poolish
  3. Briefly dry-roast the sunflower seeds in a small frying pan
Early on the day of the bake (at least two hours before mixing begins)

Teff mash
  1. Pour the boiling water over the teff flour and mix well
  2. Make sure the teff flour is completely hydrated, adding a bit more water as needed
  3. Set aside until mash comes to room temperature
Sunflower seeds soaker
  1. Add a bit of boiling water to the roasted seeds (just enough to cover)
  2. Let soak 20 minutes or so
  3. Drain the seeds and save the water

  1. Pour water 1 (including sunflower seeds soaking water) in bowl of mixer
  2. Add all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, teff mash, levain and poolish
  3. Mix on low speed until incorporated
  4. Add the salt
  5. Mix on low speed until gluten is developed
  6. Add half of water 2 and crank up speed one notch
  7. Slowly add the other half of water 2
  8. Mix briefly (just until the water is incorporated)
  9. Bring speed back down to low and add the sunflower seeds
  10. Mix until incorporated
  11. Set dough to rise in oiled and covered pan
- Dough temperature was 79°F/26°C at the end of the mixing.
- Fermentation lasted six hours at 72°F/22°C, with two folds one hour apart.
- Since my broken wrist made it impossible to fold the usual way (north over south, then west over east, and flip over), I did it one-handed inside the pan, simply by picking up the edge of the dough and bringing it towards the center, making sure to go all around.
- I should point out that I chose the wrong shape of pan for fermenting the dough. Since I was making an elongated bread I should have chosen a rectangular pan instead of a square one. I will next time.
Dividing and baking
  1. When dough has finished rising (when you palpate it with the tip of a finger, the indentation remains for a little while), dust the top with flour and invert the container on a floured counter top
  2. Gently elongate the dough into a rectangle
  3. Divide in three length-wise (there was no way I could weigh the pieces so I just eyeballed them)
  4. Using the dough cutter as a lift, transfer each piece of dough to a parchment-paper covered half-sheet pan and proof, covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on room temperature
  5. Meawhile pre-heat oven to 420°F/215°C
  6. Slide proofed ciabattas into the oven and bake (with steam for the first five minutes) for 20 minutes before turning the oven down to 400°F/204°C
  7. Continue baking for another 10 minutes (propping the door of the oven ajar with a wooden spoon for the last 5 minutes)
  8. Cool on a rack
  9. Enjoy!


  1. Stunning bread MC,

    I can almost smell the aroma ... and the crumb shot is just divine.

    So glad to see you baking and working out solutions to your current limitations. You have brought a smile to my face.

    Sending my best wishes to you

    1. Thank youso much for your kind words, Phil! It really felt "right" to be baking again, whatever the constraints. Idle dreams of the next one-handed loaf are already swirling in my head...

  2. No words. A few tears. Not sure if they are sad tears. These are tears I have a hard time figuring out

    You are a very special human being.

    1. Oh, Sally, I wouldn't say that. I don't feel special in any way. But I know the tears you are talking about. Bittersweet, they are indeed.

  3. Love always wins. Noah will live in our hearts forever.

    1. Thank you for remembering Noah. Love always wins in the long run, you are right. Anger and resentment sometimes seem to prevail but they require so much negative energy that the inner self risks withering to nothing but these two emotions. Love is the only nurturing choice even though at the beginning it is so painful that you can hardly make it through the days.

  4. what a stunning loaf of bread. there truly only you who can be this creative with water and flour, welcome back! and I am so happy you seem to be healing, even if slowly.

    1. Thank you, Barbara! You are make me blush! But I won't deny it felt excellent - and yes, healing in every sense of the word - to be playing with flour and water again.

  5. Dear MC,
    Your ciabatta is amazing; it would be an incredible accomplishment to make ciabatta like that using both hands, let alone one…
    Your bread brought happiness to your beloved grandson. I hope baking bread again, creating and sharing something delicious and beautiful, brings happiness to you.
    Sending you my very best and hope you are healing well, and fast.
    - breadsong

    1. Thank you, breadsong! You are always so kind and supportive... I can't wait to see you again at the Conference!

  6. Alan in PhiladelphiaAugust 20, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    Amazing how "easy" you make it look and sound notwithstanding your injury and cast.

    Have you tried to use voice recognition software (Dragon naturally speaking)? I use it at work and occasionally at home, and it really helps those who can't type, not to mention making transcription much quicker.

    I have a question about "levain". In Phila area--I made my own sourdough starter, and it has been in the fridge--I feed it weekly, about 1 mo old. It keeps growing and outpacing the size of the container. I punch it down, use it, and it keeps growing. Any advice? The last batch I used in an attempted sourdough challah was a total disaster--the challah did not rise and the end product could have been used as your cast.

    1. Hi Alan,
      I have used Dragon VR software for years (albeit in French, not in English) and liked it a lot but that was in a Windows environment. Now that I have switched to a Mac, I don't know that I would be so happy: the reviews are not very encouraging unfortunately... I would totally go for it otherwise.
      Re: your levain. Since you punch it down, it is probably not 100% hydration. Why don't you try a little experiment? Take 30 g of it, add 100 g of flour and 100 g of water, mix well and keep, covered, at room temp. The day after throw out all of it except for 30 g which you feed in the same manner. You should soon see bubbles develop. If there is no activity after the first 24 hours, try using a bit of whole rye flour mixed in with the all-purpose. If nothing happens, you may have to start a new levain.
      For a scientific take on what makes a levain happy, you may want to check out this blog post by SallyBR, a fellow home baker:
      Please keep me posted as to the health of your starter.

    2. Alan in PhiladelphiaAugust 21, 2013 at 9:21 AM

      See--that's the problem: French is a beautiful romantic language and English--well not so much. Even Dragon knows that, whether it is Mac or Windows :)

      I will try your suggestions. Thank you and I of course hope for your continued recovery (in all ways).

  7. That is a beautiful loaf and if I had made it two handed I would be proud, let alone one handed with a cast, very zen! Sending love as always, Joanna x

  8. Wow! I like to make ciabatta, too, but I have never gotten holes in the loaf as big as yours. I do use at least half whole grain flour, which I imagine might not help, but you used some whole wheat, and teff, in yours. Looking forward to your ciabatta tips from your class whenever you get around to it. Meanwhile I'm glad you were able to make this ciabatta despite the challenges. And yes, Dragon has never had a very good version for Mac. Dragon has bought out its competitors to keep a monopoly which is unfortunate-- it can be a buggy and difficult program, I wish there were something better in general for those who need voice control, especially for Mac.

    1. Hi Mary and thank you for visiting! I too find it frustrating that Mac users are left in the lurch as far as VR is concerned I really don't understand the logic of it.
      Re: ciabatta. Thank you for your very kind comment. I will try and post one of Didier's ciabattas as soon as I regain a bit more mobility in my wrist and hand. The holes in the crumb are entirely due to him!

  9. Obviously, if one hadn't guessed this before - you are under the influence of the Bread God AKA struck with CBS (a phrase Khalid created over on TFL that stands for compulsive baking syndrome :)

    If anyone has lived long enough one really learns that necessity IS the MOTHER of invention! Your post so clearly demonstrates this and I couldn't keep the grin off of my face while reading through all you went through to bring this loaf into being…..and what a beauty you created!!! (By the way - a lot of the breads I bake over and over are ones you have posted here)

    No need to apologize about lack of content these past months and I would disagree with you as I think you have posted a whole heck of a lot!!! When our lives change we change and change takes energy so we can't keep up the way we would like to. One never knows what will remain of the 'old' when a change occurs. I, for one, am glad you baking passion is still with you. From your sharing here I also know you are dealing with a whole lot more than Noah's death and it totally amazes me that you are keeping up posting at all!!!!

    I love your humor.

    Thanks so much for all you do share!

    Take Care,

    1. Thank you, Janet. You make me feel so much better!

  10. MC,

    I have never considered myself extremely "domestic" :). But today is my last day at my day job! I own a small business that allows me to work only weekends. So now my days will hopefully be spent with my twins digging in the dirt and planting things (I hope something grows!). When I look into their innocent eyes, my thoughts often drift to Noah and/or some story you have told.......

    Maybe one day I will get brave and attempt bread, I know I would love the outcome, but am not sure of my capability of the process.

    You will always be in my prayers............sherri

    1. Spending your days with you twins puttering in the garden growing things sounds wonderful. Baking bread isn't all that different, you know: you grow a dough and watch it blossom. Maybe one day you'll be tempted to give it a try. Be sure to keep me posted if you do! Meanwhile I am glad that you are keeping Noah in your thoughts and heart. Thank you, Sherri Tan!

  11. Hi MC,
    I found out your blog through Barbara of Bread and Companatico.
    This recipe is truly wonderful, thank you for sharing.
    And many compliments for engaging in bread making with your wrist broken!
    It's nice to hear you are slowly healing from your loss and re-descovering love for baking, you are very talented and this blogs speaks out.
    I wish you a wonderful day and look forward to reading you soon.

  12. Thank you, Luisa! You know, necessity truly is the mother of invention. I had a sudden craving for my own bread and I needed to make it happen. That's all there was to it really. But caring for a living dough, especially for the first time in months, isn't like peeling potatoes or boiling water or even assembling a cake. It awakens connections, memories and hopes. It opens a door to the soul. At least I guess that's what happened. All I know is that a step has been taken. And even though the journey is long out of this darkness, it is a move in the right direction.

  13. That bread looks so yummy! Now that the weather is (hopefully) going to start cooling off, I've been thinking about cooking and baking again. I lost my mom in June, and that's cast a bit of a pall over my wanting to do very much, but as time goes by, that urge to *do* is slowly coming back. Once the kids are back in school, I'll have entire days to putz around in my kitchen and I think I'll try this recipe. :D

    Many hugs,


    (i hope this doesn't come up twice. my computer flaked when I hit publish)

    1. Hello Kim! So sorry about your mom. It is hard to overcome such a loss. Hopefully baking will indeed help! I would be honored if you tried the recipe. If you do, let me know how it goes.
      Hugs, MC

  14. A beautiful looking ciabatta! I like to combine a levain with yeast preferment. I'm glad that you wrist allows you to bake again, and to manage such a loaf one handed is very impressing.
    For me the flavour of food is often connected with memories. I hope that baking bread will bring a lot of good and happy memories to you!

    1. Thank you, Stefanie! It really is and maybe all this waiting with no yearning to bake had to do with the fact I wasn't ready to handle bread-baking memories yet until a couple of weeks ago...

  15. Hi MC, Glad that you have returned to your bread-making, you put me to shame, with your domestic abilities. I will try to follow one of the recipes, it seems as though bread-making is tricky, though.

    I hope your treatments are going well, so much to have to endure for one person in a short time. You are a wonderful writer and I enjoy your wit and wisdom. Nice memory of Noah enjoying your fresh bread.



  16. Hi Farine,
    This looks so delicious. In every bread you make I see the loving face Noah.
    The smell of roasted sunflower seeds and ciabatta, what a combination. As soon as my starter is active again, I just started a new one, I'm off to bake this. Do you think I can bake this without the Teff mash? And make more poolish in stead?

    1. Hi Connie! Good to see you again... I wouldn't replace the teff mash with more poolish because the mash is soaked flour rather than a pre-ferment. You might want to try and do a whole wheat mash instead. That should give your bread a nice flavor as well.

  17. I'm glad you are finding the way. So much love to you & big hugs. xoxo



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