Poolish, biga and sponge, oh my!

It's been a week long bake fest while I recover from jetlag, sort out my computer, procrastinate a little and maybe even celebrate a few birthdays.  Baking makes me feel like I am 'home' and doesn't quite qualify as procrastination (or at least justifies it a bit).  So, to that end, this is what's happening on top of the refrigerator at the moment. Poolish.

Poolish, biga, and sponge are all terms you may have seen in bread recipes, all referring to various methods of starting the leavening process as well as adding flavour and texture to bread through fermentation.  They are all types of pre-ferments that use partial amounts of flour and water with the teeniest bit of commercial yeast to get the party going before the main event.  While the basic fermentation, that of yeast, can be undertaken without this added complexity to give technically good bread, I prefer the little 'something else' added by this extra step.  Don't be daunted by the extra time (it's mainly waiting) of a pre-ferment, it's a very hands off type of activity.

Poolish is (approximately) a 1:1 water flour mixture given a kick start with a teaspoon or two of yeast (or as little as half a teaspoon). The top of the fridge isn't the warmest place in the house at the moment but it's draft free and keeps the countertop from getting too cluttered. The hot water cupboard is too warm for the slow cool ferment I prefer.

A cooler ferment, you may ask?  Isn't it heat I am after?? Well, yes, if the house is under 10C.. but no, if it is a constant say, 16C upwards. Just place the bowl on top of the fridge, near the back where there is the tiniest bit of warmth, and leave it for 24-48 hours. A longer cooler ferment retains the volatiles that will later contribute both flavour and aroma to your bread plus you don't want the yeast to run out of steam (or in this case nutrients) before they've done the work to leaven your bread.

This experiment recalls lessons from Micro 4804 back in the day and reminded me of my lovely gift to self (also a few years back) courtesy of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.  I won't turn this in to a book review but will say that this isn't the typical Alford/Duguid travelogue and regionally focused cookbook that you might be used to if you are familiar with their work. It's more of the bit of this, bit of that, here and there style of comforting home recipes they have amassed over their years trekking around the globe.  A few of their more personal souvenirs, if you will, that they now (with the possible exception of the high altitude chocolate cookies?) make at home.

I bought Homebaking with the eventual ideal of getting back to making all my own bread. I grew up eating only homemade (not by choice, I might add) but would have much preferred the store bought bread brought to school by my classmates.  Travelling has since expanded my definition of bread and I love a variety of types and styles to accompany different meals and foods (cheese!) as much as I enjoy pairing a meal with a particular beer or wine.

I picked a few recipes to run a few experiments for the simple reasons that they are time flexible and were similar to recipes from my favourite parts of Southern Italy, Apuglia and Calabria.

While I started the early day with a latte, the Pugliese sponge started with biga. Biga is drier than poolish, usually 2:1 flour to water. Don't be tempted to smooth it out with more liquid as it will hydrate on standing (water is a product of the fermentation process).  Once the biga has developed for about 12-24 hours, it is broken into pieces and made into a smooth batter with more water, flour and sometimes additional yeast. Not for beginners or anyone without deft hands, pugliese sponge 'dough' is more of a batter.  Slimy and slippery, you'll almost wonder if you've added too much water or somehow forgotten the bulk of the flour.

The trick of getting it into the oven from your peel is another matter but the loaf does rise and brown. It is a moist loaf, slices well and makes great toast a few days later.

The Calabrese loaf (it's actually called "Italian bread") could very well be any ubiquitous boulé from other regions but after trying it, it is very similar to the loaves churned out in Toronto's Little Italy and other Italian communities as Calabrese bread. These 3 1-kg loaves and 2 foccaccia began life as poolish.  Poolish is, again, wetter than biga, at about 1:1 flour water ratio with a bit of yeast (dissolved prior to adding the flour). The great feature of this bread was the ability for it to be tucked away in the fridge and made over a few days if timing wasn't the most convenient.

Above are the baker's treats: a steaming latté to start the day, lunch of tomato salad and and some homemade coppa with a pugliese bread roll, and, after a long day of baking the loaves, a cold beer. There are other rewards.  Since I made more than enough bread to keep us in stock for awhile, I also made a wonderful trade with my neighbour who was happy to have some fresh bread for dinner.  In exchange for a Calabrese loaf, I received a large bowl of spicy stoccafisso (similar to baccala) cooked in tomatoes. Very good with the bread to soak up the sauce.



Barbara said…
Hope you enjoyed your birthday Mary.
Mary said…
Thank you Barbara, and you as well. It was a low-key affair, compared to the weeks of partying happening near Brisbane ;-)
Hope you had a lovely time with family and friends.
toby's kitchen said…
Those loaves are bellismi! Thanks for sorting out the poolish/ biga question.
Mary said…
Hi Toby,
Sorry for the late reply. I've got a stockpile of biga in the fridge right now having decided to bake my way through Carol Field's "The Italian Baker". A tough task, but sampling the results is tasty fun.

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