I really love visiting Malta and eating in the restaurants that served local food. I particularly like the bread (Ħobż Malti), and the snack called Ħobż-bi-żejt (bread and oil), which I found remarkably like a Tunisian Sandwich. Maltese bread is a solid sourdough bread. It has a crisp crust and a light crumb with irregular holes – and it is very tasty. It uses a dough-like starter (pre-ferment) called ħmira or tinsila in Maltese, but called biga in Italian.
My starting point for this recipe was Anne & Helen Caruana Galizia’s book The Food & Cookery of Malta, but the recipe has evolved somewhat through experimentation.
- 2 grams (1/4 teaspoon) of active dry yeast
- 80 ml (1/3 cup) lukewarm water (body temperature, 37º C, or just cool enough to put your little finger in. I use 1/3 boiling to 2/3 tap water)
- 100 grams (2/3 cup) strong flour (unsifted)
- Half your dough starter (Use the other half for making your bread)
- 60 ml (1/4 cup) lukewarm water
- 100 grams (2/3 cup) strong flour
- Half your dough starter
- 10 grams (1 teaspoon) of active dry yeast (you use less, but leave the bread to rise longer)
- 250 ml (1 cup) lukewarm water
- 1-2 teaspoons salt
- 400 grams (3 - 3 1/2 cups) strong flour
- [Optional] Sesame seeds or additional flour for dusting
- Place all Stage 1 ingredients in bowl
- Mix by hand until a smooth dough (add more water if necessary)
- Knead for a few minutes (may be tricky due to the small quantity).
- Cover and leave in a warm place (about 21-29º C) for at least 6 hours. Overnight if cooler.
- Mix all Stage 2 ingredients in a bowl
- Knead to a ball.
- Cover and leave in a warm place (about 21º C) for at least 6 hours. Overnight if cooler.
- Store for future use. You can dry it, or store in the fridge or freezer.
- Mix starter, yeast and water in a bowl.
- Dissolve the dough starter by squeezing with your fingers.
- Add salt and flour to yeast mixture and mix.
- Add just enough flour to yeast mixture so it stops being a batter and holds together as a soft dough. The wetter it is the bigger the holes in the final bread, but don't make it too wet or the loaf will collapse. .
- Cover and rest the dough for 10 minutes.
- Knead the dough in the bowl until it is smooth and silk (about 10 min).
- Turn into an oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place (21-29º C) 2-5 hours.
- Turn the dough over in the bowl every hour during that time.
- DO NOT KNEAD OR KNOCK BACK – we want the air bubbles intact.
- At this point you can store the dough in the fridge
- When ready to bake transfer to a floured work top.
- Lightly slash the top of the dough.
- [Optional Step] Dip dough in a pile of sesame seeds or sprinkle flour over the top of dough.
- Gently transfer to an oiled or floured baking tray
- Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled from its original size (about 45 min).
- Bake at 230º C (or as high as it will go) for 30-40 min; check after 25 min to turn the loaf around.
- Remove from oven and leave to cool uncovered on a wire rack.
- (1) Whether or not you have a starter affects where you begin this recipe. Begin at :-
- Stage 1 - Making your dough starter - if you have no starter.
- Stage 2 - Refresh your dough starter - if you've already got a dough starter. This might be from Stage 1 or because you already have a large walnut sized dough ball from a previous bread making exercise.
- (2) The aim of Stage 2 - Refresh your dough starter - is to have enough starter for next time. The dough starter contains no salt because salt impedes the fermentation process. Nor is there any added yeast - this is, after all, sourdough. Once you've got the starter you can make the bread. Store the rest of the starter for future use. You can dry the spare starter, or store in the fridge or freezer.
- (3) You can store the dough in the fridge until you are ready to bake (8-24 hours). The directions show when you can do this safely. The cold of the fridge will practically stop the fermentation. Place the dough in a banneton (cloth lined wicker basket), cover with another cloth, and put into the fridge. The basket provides support for the soft dough. When you are ready to bake, the cold will have made the dough easier to handle and also retarding the fermentation gives a better crust. If you want interesting patterns on your bread then, use a banneton with no cloth cover; the shape of the canes will imprint on the dough. If you are going to dust with flour, then dust the bottom of the banneton as well as the top of the dough, and put dough into the banneton top first.
Sources and inspiration
Beth. Biga sponge/starter for Italian breads. http://countrylife.net/pages/recipes/684.html [broken link].
Anne & Helen Caruana Galizia. (2001). The Food & Cookery of Malta. Pax.
This book started a resurgence in interest in Maltese cooking, and was the basis for this recipe. Helen. one of the authors, emailed me and suggested I put contact details up should you wish to obtain a copy: Pax Books: 75 Quentin Road, London, SE13 5DG, England
Geri Guidetti. Italian Biga Bread. http://waltonfeed.com/grain/y-rec/biga.html.
Jack Lang. Sourdough Bread. http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=27634.