In my family’s Singapore kitchen this week, my mother carefully brought out a prized discovery from her fridge, nudging me to try it.
Inside the box was a lovingly swaddled loaf of bread, filled with slivers of ham and dappled with bits of melted and crusty cheese. A friend had given it to her and my mother had decided it was the best bread she’d ever tasted.
“Hey, I think I recently made something like this,” I said.
“You DID?” came her incredulous response.
Her disbelief was completely understandable — I rarely set foot in the kitchen as a child. And when I finally did start cooking in my 20s, I was initially more known for inedible cheesecakes than Julia Child creations.
As for baking bread, it’s something that seemed so difficult that I never considered trying it until I joined the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge in May. But baking a bread every week along with more than 200 bakers around the world has been a surprisingly empowering and therapeutic thing.
In a piece that I wrote for the Washington Post Food section about the proliferation of online cooking and baking groups, Jeff of Culinary Disasters talks about learning to be patient from baking bread for the challenge. Wendy of Pink Stripes says she’s become such a brave cook that she’s applied that confidence outside of the kitchen, too. (Wendy, who had always wanted to learn to scuba dive, took the plunge in December.)
As for me, I’ve learned gobs — about time management, the need for enough sleep, the importance of simply trying. Above all, through the exhilarating successes and occasional clouds of smoke, I’ve grown increasingly sure of one thing: If you set your mind to doing something — even if it seems impossible — you’re going to be able to do it. (And, if you’re lucky like I’ve been, you’ll have the fist-bumps of fellow bakers, pushing you along the way.)
And that’s intoxicating knowledge to have.
So, yes, Mum, I really did make casatiello, an Italian bread filled with cured meat and melted cheese that tastes just divine. And it was actually pretty simple …
While the batter was left to ferment and bubble for an hour, Mike the sous-chef coarsely grated provolone and I diced up some Italian salami, briefly sauteing the cubes until they started to smell amazingly fragrant.
Then, I stirred together flour, sugar and salt …
… added some eggs …
… and then mixed in the bubbly sponge.
Once that was all mixed together, it rested for a while before I added some butter, mixed it in and started kneading.
After several minutes of kneading, the salami and cheese were gradually added in. By this point, the dough was coming together rather nicely. It felt tacky but not sticky, as author Peter Reinhart recommended.
Then, the bread was supposed to ferment for 90 minutes, allowing it to rise.
This is how it looked after just an hour, however.
I began to worry about how freakishly large it was getting (Hello, Bruce Banner…) so I decided to cut short the fermentation and start shaping my loaf.
Now, this recipe calls for baking it in large brown paper bags or coffee cans. If I had read the recipe through before starting to bake, I might actually be in possession of one of these two items.
Instead, I went for the backup plan — using a boring old loaf pan.
After a little more fermentation in the pan, I was startled to discover that the loaf overfloweth.
Nonetheless, I popped it into the oven and it came out a beautiful shade of light caramel, filling the apartment with the scent of buttery baked bread mingled with spicy salami and melted cheese.
I wished desperately that I knew how to bottle that.
The bread was a hit at a dinner party I went to that evening — sliced up and quartered, it made for a wonderful snack with a crisp Italian white on a warm summer evening.
If I had to do one thing differently, it would be to cut some of the provolone up into cubes instead of coarsely grating the entire batch. (This would have created soft, cheesy pockets in the bread.)
But that’s the other thing that baking bread for this challenge has taught me — things are often better on the second try. You get more creative; you have more confidence.
And along with all the other things I’ve learned through baking, that also applies to life as well.
Casatiello by other Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge bakers:
Carolyn’s at Two Skinny Jenkins
Chris’s at Eating Is The Hard Part
Daniel’s at Ahrelich Gesagt
Devany’s at My Hawaiian Home
Janice’s at Round The Table
Jeff’s at Culinary Disasters
Laurie’s at Chilli & Chocolate
Nicole’s at Pinch My Salt
Paula’s at Bell’Alimento
Wendy’s at Pink Stripes