When we lived in Boston, my mother would sometimes send my brother and me "down the square" to pick up a couple of loaves of Italian bread fresh from the oven at Messina's. Messina's served absolutely wonderful pizza by the slice (square, thin crust) and made fresh bread every day. If they made other things, I don't remember. That pizza and bread was enough for me. The smell of the baking bread was heavenly, and that pizza, served in a big square of wax paper, was a special treat. It cost 25 cents. Mr. Messina was from Sicily and talked like my grandfather.
Matthew and I would walk the 4 or 5 blocks to the square -- a sort of downtown area for our Roslindale neighborhood -- and pick up two loaves of bread, hot from the oven and wrapped in long paper bags. I would hug them to me on the walk home as I nibbled on the top of one of those irresistible loaves. My mother never seemed to mind that I did that. Apparently she did something similar as a young girl in England.
The smell of bread baking in the oven is like a giant hug. It evokes all kinds of warm memories, and makes the house smell pretty good, too.
Ciabatta, also kown as Italian Slipper Bread because it is shaped something like a bedroom slipper, is a simple bread, with lots of air holes. It is intended to be light, but there is considerable variation. It is the bread most often used in Paninis. It makes wonderful toast. It's crust is crisp and floury, but the inside is light. Try making it yourself. It's very easy, although it takes some time. Most of the time involved is waiting. There is not a whole lot of work.
This recipe makes two loaves.
FOR THE STARTER
1/2 tsp dry yeast
2/3 cup water
3 Tbs milk
1/4 tsp honey or sugar
1 cup unbleached flour
FOR THE DOUGH
1/2 tsp dry yeast
1 cup water
1/2 tsp olive oil
2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
To make the starter: Sprinkle the yeast into the water and milk in a large bowl. Leave for 5 minutes then add honey or sugar and stir to dissolve. Mix in flour to form a loose batter. Cover bowl with a dish towel and let rise for 12 hours or overnight.
To make the dough: Sprinkle the yeast into the water in a small bowl. Leave for 5 minutes then stir to dissolve. Add the dissolved yeast and olive oil to the starter and mix well.
Mix in the flour and salt to form a wet, sticky dough. Beat steadily with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes; the dough will become spring and start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, but will be too soft to knead.
Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let rise until tripeld in size and full or air bubbles, about 3 hours. Do NOT punch down the dough! Generously flour a large baking sheet (or two small ones). Have extra flour ready for your hands.
Preheat oven to 425.
Divide the dough in half while in the bowl. Scoop out half onto floured baking sheet. Use well floured hands to pull and stretch dough into a rectangular loaf about 12 inches long. Dust loaf and hands again with flour. Tidy up the loaf by running your fingers down each side and tucking in where needed. Remember, this dough should be handled "like a baby" and not overworked. Do the same for the other loaf.
Allow loaves to proof for 20 minutes. They will spread out some and rise a bit. Bake 30 minutes, until golden brown and hollow sounding when thumped. Cool on wire rack.
Source: The Art of Bread, Cooking Club of America