When I visited Martino Casa del Pane (House of Bread) in Matera shortly before their midday closing, the foot traffic was as thick as rush hour in Manhattan. Artisanal bread is a big deal in Italy and nowhere more so than Matera, the ancient Basilicata city that is built on caves. Neighboring Puglia is the biggest durum wheat producer in Italy so fine flour is close at hand.
The Casa del Pane produces a variety of loaves — olive, potato, dried tomato, Gorgonzola, corn flour — to name a few. The business is run by Papa Giovanni and sons Nunzio, Giuseppe, Minno and daughter Teresa.
After eating bread in Italy, I inevitably return home fired up to create loaves of my own. Granted, the bread does not taste exactly like the oven-baked beauties from Casa del Pane but necessity is the mother of bread making.
Lately, I’ve been changing my standard rustic bread formula to make a heartier loaf studded with chewy whole wheat berries, which are simply whole grains of wheat. I also add some whole wheat flour, semolina, and a few tablespoons of ground flaxseed for added nutrients. The resulting loaves are filled with good grain flavor but surprising light with a crisp crust.
I start one or two days ahead by mixing a biga, (sponge) a paste made from flour, water, and dry yeast. As it ferments, it develops flavor that will enhance the finished bread.
Mix the sponge in a 4-cup glass measuring cup or clear glass bowl and you’ll be able to see its bubbling action throughout the process. You’ll also give the mixture the room it needs to expand to three times its original volume. Cover it with plastic wrap and tuck it in a cool spot (or in the refrigerator) for 12 to 48 hours. The thick mixture will bubble up and rise, and then fall slightly. At the end, it will look like pancake batter. If some of the liquid separates from the batter part, don’t worry.
To prepare the dough, the sponge is mixed with more flour and water, salt, and any add-ins you like — from wheat berries to herbs to grated cheeses. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the dough is resilient. Even novice bakers will sense when the dough has been sufficiently kneaded: It feels alive.
If you’re making bread for the first time, you may want to prepare by hand rather than using a machine. The experience will be more tactile and pleasurable, not to mention educational, as you feel how soft and moist this dough should be. But the recipe will also work in a food processor or electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. A plastic dough scraper makes quick work of cleaning the mixing bowl. Bake the bread on heavy baking pans that don’t buckle with the high heat. If you have a ceramic baking stone, preheat it and bake the loaves directly on it for a crisper crust.
After the baked bread is cool, store in a brown paper bag for a day or two. Or, do as I do and slice and freeze the loaves.
Italian Wheat Berry Bread
Makes 4 loaves (about 1 pound each)
2 packages (1/4-ounce each) active dry yeast (1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon)
1 cup warm bottled or filtered water (105° to 115°F)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups warm bottled or filtered water (105° to 115°F)
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup semolina flour + some for dusting pans
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 1/2 cups cooked, cooled wheat berries (see note)
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
To prepare the sponge: In a medium bowl, combine the yeast and water. Stir to
dissolve. Add the flour and beat to make a batter. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set aside in a cool draft-free spot (the refrigerator is okay) for 12 to 48 hours.
To prepare the dough: In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, whole-wheat flour, and salt. Beat with a wooden spoon to make a batter. Stir in 1 cup semolina flour, the flaxseed, and the wheat berries.
Stir to combine. Scrape the sponge into the bowl. Adding about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporate about 3 cups of all-purpose flour, mixing well after each addition.
When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, dust a work surface with some of the remaining flour and pile the rest of the flour in a mound on the side. Turn the dough onto the work surface. Clean the bowl with a plastic dough scraper. Clean hands and scraper with flour. Lightly dust the dough with a little of the remaining flour. Using a dough scraper, turn the dough over on itself until its outer surface is no longer sticky.
Knead the dough, dusting the work surface whenever necessary, for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the dough is springy. All of the flour may not be needed. The interior of the dough ball should be moist but the outside should not be sticky. Shape the dough into a ball. Coat a large bowl with nonstick spray. Place the dough in the bowl. Coat with spray. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise at room temperature for about 1 hour, or until doubled.
Scatter 2 to 3 tablespoons of semolina on a 2 large baking sheets. Punch down the dough.
Divide in quarters. Pinch open edges to seal. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. On a lightly floured work surface, use lightly floured palms to press each piece of dough into a rectangle, about 12 by 6 inches. Starting at one long end, roll into a tube and pinch the ends to seal. Rub the loaves all over with flour. Place the loaves on the prepared baking sheet. Dust the loaves with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F. Just before baking, use a sharp knife or scissors to cut shallow slashes at 2-inch intervals in the loaves.
Bake the loaves for 25 to 30 minutes, or until they are well-browned and an instant-reading thermometer registers 200°F in the center of each loaf. Remove to a rack to cool.
To freeze the bread: Cool completely, then cut in 1-inch thick slices. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil. To thaw the bread for immediate serving, unwrap the bread and discard the plastic wrap. Separate the slices loosely and place them on the foil. Place in a preheated 350°F oven for about 10 minutes or until warm. This method produces a crisp crust. Individual slices may be warmed in a toaster oven.
To cook wheat berries, rinse them well in a sieve under cold running water. Transfer to a saucepan and cover with enough water to rise 2 inches above the kernels. Bring to a rapid simmer and cook for 30 to 60 minutes or until desired doneness. Drain and spread on a tray to cool. Pack into plastic freezer bags or containers to refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 3 months.
And, if you find yourself in Matera, be sure to visit
Martino Giovanni e Figli Casa Del Pane
Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 4
(39) 0835 336161