We’ve been snowed in out here in southwestern Missouri by the latest big storm (the snomageddon as some called it). Each of the four of us head off to different schools (as students or teachers) in the morning and for the last few days, all of our respective schools (kids’ and adults’) have been closed due to weather. Since I’ve been stuck indoors, I figured I might as well get an early start on this week’s challenge, casatiello – the Italian version of French brioche. People who follow this blog regularly know that I’ve already taken on the casatiello challenge before, back in December of last year. That time, I followed Carol Field’s recipe, whereas this time I followed Reinhart’s. In fact, Reinhart gives Field a shout-out when writing up his own formula, which is apparently his own alteration of Field’s version. I’ve made this particular bread quite a few times, each time tweaking Field’s recipe myself. As a result, I didn’t think this week would be particularly difficult or out of my baking comfort zone. As it turns out, it wasn’t.
Admittedly, although I’m a big fan of Carol Field’s (before Reinhart’s book I had exclusively worked from her book, the Italian Baker for the past year), I didn’t love her casatiello. For a lot of reasons (that I explain below) I should have loved her recipe, but in the end I was only a marginal fan (which explains all the tweaking – I was trying to get it to come out in a way I would like). So when I saw that this week’s challenge was casatiello, I wasn’t terribly excited, as I figured I’d be a so-so fan yet again. However, in the end I liked Reinhart’s version much better than Field’s. His version improves on her recipe by toning down all of the aspects of Field’s casatiello that are, in my opinion, too excessive. The result is a smooth tasting, delicately crusted, moist and gently crumbed delight — with just a hint of richness from the butter and egg ingredients and just the right amount of extra taste coming from the sauteed pepperoni and the sharp provolone. I made this to go along with a basil-heavy marinara sauce, and I must admit I felt a bit decadent using the casatiello to sop up the extra sauce on my plate, but it went together so well I excused myself the non-virtuous excess. (Here you’ll find Jim’s, Adam’s, Geraint’s, DJ’s, Nancy’s and Coz’s. As my fellow BBA bakers file in — a little late this week? –I’ll add their links here.)
What first attracted me to Field’s casatiello was the fact that the ingredients reminded me of one of my favorite all time meals growing up. As a kid, a special treat (when we had the cash) for us was to go to the Italian deli, get a loaf of fresh Italian bread (you know, the real stuff, not the crap they call Italian bread out here), a water and salted mozzarella, some extra sharp provolone, pepperoni, tomatoes, and some prosciutto (some of which would be hanging from the ceiling in huge shanks – oh the smells! — glorious!). Bringing it all home, we knew were about to have sandwich time, Italian American style! Seriously, the mere thought of making these tiny sandwiches was enough to turn me into a one-thought-focused zombie. What a meal. It was our version of antipasto, but on bread.
Casatiello in some ways reminds me of that meal, but all the ingredients are already baked into the bread. In fact, Field’s recipe calls for four different kinds of cheeses (if I recall right, provolone, gruyere, parmesan, and I can’t recall the fourth) and a meat or two (Field’s calls for Italian salami). Reinhart’s recipe takes that down to one cheese and one meat, which I think is actually a good idea. All those extra cheeses didn’t, in my opinion, add that much, and the cost level really does go up fast when you add them, so they should make an impact to justify the expense. Still, when you eat Reinhart’s casatiello you still get the distinct impression that it is a compressed sandwich (or antipasto!) loaded with Italian meats and cheeses. The toning down of the recipe doesn’t affect quality.
Overall, it is probably easiest to think of casatiello as a mild brioche. On the heart-attack scale, it is a bit milder than the poor man’s brioche from last week’s challenge. Which is good.Filing out insurance forms while I’m eating isn’t my thing.
I don’t find casatiello to be terribly hard to make. Yet again, I can’t see rating it higher than novice (I think this is four in a row). It’s not quite a beginner bread, because of the added extra ingredients, all of which make shaping the dough — or even knowing when the dough is ready for first rising — a bit more challenging. At the same time, it’s really not that hard to do those things, even with the extra ingredients. I can’t imagine rating it as intermediate.
In fact, I might be willing to rate Carol Field’s casatiello as an “intermediate minus” because it adds so many ingredients to the dough that it is hard to keep the thing together. I remember making mine and salami and cheese (the four different cheeses) were ripping their way through the surface of the dough. I had rips in the dough everywhere. It was a bit old mess (came out good, but it it was definitely a bit of a challenge to make the dough behave in the appropriate way).
As I noted, luckily Reinhart’s recipe doesn’t have that much in it (one cheese, one meat), so there’s nothing to really worry about in that area. I did have a minor problem at the end in the baking process (it didn’t seem done to me, when it actually was), and this threw me for a bit of confusion, but it wasn’t a big deal. If you’re doing it the second time, you’d know exactly how it should turn out and then the finishing process wouldn’t be a concern at all (I discuss that below).
Comments on the Process
Casatiello has the three basic steps - (a) sponge, (b) dough/shape, (c) bake. I stayed literal with the recipe until stage (c), where I made a few minor alterations.
Step One – Sponge
Reinhart describes this fast one hour sponge as like pancake batter. He was right — that’s an apt description. It does look like it’s ready to be thrown on a griddle. Don’t do that, mind you. It would make for a pretty disgusting pancake.
Once again, Reinhart made a promise that the process was not prepared to keep. He said that the sponge would double and then a mild tapping on the bowl would cause the sponge to collapse. My sponge never doubled, but as you know from the last two challenges, this is hardly a news flash. The fact that my sponges fail to rise and then fall is just about as informative as the sentence “Charlie Sheen fails at rehab.”
Step Two – Dough, Retard, Shape
I had little difficulty with the dough creation part of the process.
I’m sure that part of that fact came, as I’ve noted, from the fact that I’ve made this before, a few times. Most of the time when I redo this recipe (Field’s) I take out the eggs and load up even more cheese and meat, making the dough really a lot closer to a normal bread dough, but just with a little extra butter added. The end result, though, is that I’m used to what happens when you add all this stuff.
Now, a few comments on the process that might help those who have never done this before.
First. Reinhart says you can use salami or pepperoni. I’ve done both before – go with the pepperoni, if you can get a real pepperoni stick (not the crap pepperoni slices that come in that lame bag in the supermarket). The salami doesn’t have enough kick (where “kick” is extra meaty flavor in the same way that “wang” is extra cheesy flavor). Basically, salami doesn’t add enough to the final product. The good thing about pepperoni is that it inevitably leaks fats into the product, spreading the kick around. Salami doesn’t do that.
Second, and related, Reinhart says to sautee the meat chunks. I’ve never done this before, so I did it this time. It added a bit to the process, but seems unnecessary in the long run. What this does do is remove much of the excess fat from the meat. If you just put the pepperoni in the dough, you will wind up (as I said) with leakage in the baking process. When you cut into the bread, you’ll see larger pools of baked pepperoni fat (which is good). If you sautee the meat, you won’t get that. Now Reinhart does say that you can add the fat from the frying pan to the dough later, which would spread the fat around evenly. From my view, you might as well just add the meat without frying it – you’ll get the same result anyway.
Third, Reinhart says to add specific cheeses and avoid others. He specifically says to use provolone, which I agree is a good one to use. He says to avoid mozzarella – and he’s right. Mozzarella is too bland to add to bread. The problem, as you’ll see, is that when you add cheeses to bread they – for the most part — completely evaporate into the bread. You can’t find them in the way that you can find the meat. They just get incorporated into the dough. So you don’t want to choose a cheese without any real wang to it. You’d just be adding money and calories for no reason.
Fourth, and related to the cheese issue, Reinhart says to use shredded cheese. I don’t recommend this. My reason is simple: if you use shredded cheese, you are guaranteed not to find any cheese in the dough physically. It will evaporate into the dough. Instead, I recommend two things:
a) Use larger chunks. Most of this will evaporate too. But if you use larger cubes or chunks, you will likely wind up with some actual cheese “spots” that are physically present. It took me a few times around the block with this to figure out the cheese issue.
b) Although Reinhart says to add the meat and cheeses in the actual mixing process, this is not entirely necessary. You can add then during the shaping process. This is something Field recommends. So after you rise the dough, punch it down, and then add the meat and cheese through the various stages of creating the boule. If you do this you’ll also wind up with a cleaner looking dough, since all of the meats and cheeses with me inside the dough as opposed to some jutting out of the dough itself (which is inevitable if you add them during the mixing process). Doing it this way also makes the process of mixing easier, and also leads to a greater possibility that the cheeses won’t entirely evaporate (wince the mixer wouldn’t have broken up the cheeses in the mixing process).
Now, this time around, I should note that I added them in the mixing process, just to see what would happen, but in the end – now having done both – I think adding them in the shaping process would be just fine.
(Picture note: in the picture above, I had my dough in the first rise in a covered bowl near my fireplace. I don’t usually do that, but it was -10 outside, and inside it was barely 65 degrees, so I knew that would mean a longer rise period. So I put it nearer the fire. What was cool about the pic was my cat is visible somewhat just behind the other chair!)
Step Three – Baking
First, I didn’t have the pans that he asked for. He recommends doing a pannetone-like process where you put it in a can with a paper liner, but I didn’t have either of the needed tools to do that, and it was blizzard like outside so I couldn’t go anywhere to get them. He also suggests that you could use an 8-inch baking pan and have it cook in that, but I goofed and let my dough free rise (to the left) after I shaped it into a boule for too long. My plan had been to let it free rise a few minutes and then transfer it to an 8-inch springform I had nearby, but I lost track of time and by the time I got back to it, the dough had expanded past the size of the springform.
So I had to just let it go as a free-standing loaf. Which, to be honest, was fine with me, but I had wanted to follow the recipe straight through all the way to the end. Ah well!
My last and final issue was at the very end. Reinhart suggests that you let it bake for 40 to 50 minutes at 325. Field recommends 400 for 50 minutes, so the difference in temperature really struck me as large. So I did mine at 350 (given that Field’s came out really good at 400). However, after 50 minutes, it didn’t seem ready to me. It was too soft. So I would up letting it bake for 10 additional minutes, at which point is was stiff soft on the crust (but rightly so, given the ingredients), but ready to go.
A word of caution: if you free-stand the baking, beware that the final product is not going to be solid like a bread loaf. If you apply too much pressure in handling it, you may collapse that part of the crust. So be careful. The crust is very light and delicate. You need to handle the product with care.
Comments on the Final Product
This is a great bread. My wife loved it – she, like me – preferred Reinhart’s version to Field’s. It’s thick, flavorful, but not overly rich (and gag reflex inducing) in the way that the rich man’s brioche was. I suspect that this bread is like making poor man’s brioche, but with extra meats and cheeses. In some ways, because of the extra stuff inside, it’s like a sandwich bread that you don’t need to add anything to. It’s a sandwich unto itself! As I’ve said, I’ve done this recipe before, and I can easily see doing it again.
Aesthetically, I wouldn’t say much about this bread – but that’s my fault, as I baked it as a free-standing loaf. I imagine that using the cans with the bags would make this far more attractive insofar as photos go. Note the pepperoni sticking out of the sides!
This shot didn’t come out as good as I’d hoped (it was nighttime, so I needed some extra light and the flash didn’t engage for some reason). However, you can see that the pepperoni is clearly present, but the cheese is a bit harder to find (though I used larger chunks, so you can see some of it). The crumb on this bread is delightfully moist and flavorful, by the way!
Here’s the title shot again, which is a better photo and does a better job of capturing the crumb, along with the nice holes I got this time around.
Next Week: Challah
This time around, I am excited about next week’s challenge. First, I love challah bread, and grew up in an area in NYC where it was easy to get the highest quality challah around. Second, it looks to me as if challah is a bit more difficult than some of the breads we’ve made so far. At the very least, the braiding pattern is not easy. So I’m looking forward to the challenge. See you then!