How to Get the Air Bubbles in Italian Semolina Bread

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Flour made from high-gluten durum wheat is mostly used in pasta, but it also plays a role in some breads. One of the best-known is a semolina bread from Italy, sometimes called Pane Siciliano. It has a chewy texture and rich, nutty flavor, and a distinctively open texture with lots of large bubbles. Keeping those air bubbles in your finished loaf requires a bit of practice and close attention to technique.

Things You'll Need

  • Dough cutter or butter knife
  • Flour
  • Oil
  • Mixing bowl
  • Sesame seeds
  • Plastic film wrap

Preparing the Dough

  • Prepare the sponge for your bread. Some recipes make a sponge that rises at room temperature within an hour or so, while others call for a slow rise overnight -- or longer -- in your refrigerator. Both work well, although the slow-rise versions create a loaf with deeper and more complex flavors.

  • Chop the sponge into several pieces with a butter knife or dough cutter, and leave it on your countertop for an hour to warm to room temperature. Once it's ready, combine it with the rest of your dough ingredients. Knead the dough until it's smooth and elastic. It will be a soft and slightly sticky dough, if the proportions of flour and water are correct.

  • Oil the dough lightly and cover it. Let it rest at room temperature for an hour or so, until it's increased by 50 percent. Punch down the dough, cover it, and refrigerate it overnight.

Shaping and Baking

  • Tip the chilled, risen dough from your mixing bowl onto a well-floured working surface. Use a dough cutter or butter knife to divide the soft mound of dough into the correct number of loaves. Most recipes make two or three.

  • Gently stretch each piece of dough into a rough rectangle by placing your fingers underneath the middle of the dough and then drawing them away from each other. Patting or poking the dough deflates it and pops the air bubbles you're trying to preserve.

  • Fold the long side of the dough nearest you, so it stretches and covers the middle third of the rectangle. Press that edge of the dough firmly with your fingertips to seal it into the middle, taking care to only press the seam. At this point you should have a thick, doubled portion of the dough near you and a thinner third of the original rectangle at the far edge.

  • Fold the far edge of the dough toward you, stretching it over the top. Seal it firmly to the edge nearest you, making a smooth seam. You now have a rough, flattened cylinder that should contain most of the air bubbles from the second rising. Repeat this process with each additional loaf, then let them all rest for 10 to 15 minutes before proceeding.

  • Cup your hands over the first loaf, gently rolling and stretching it into a rough cylinder approximately 2 feet long. If you find it begins to shrink back, set that loaf aside and come back to it after working on the others. That gives the gluten time to relax, so you'll apply less force and squeeze out fewer air bubbles.

  • Curl the ends of each cylinder back toward the middle, in opposite directions, so the cylinder makes a loose "S" shape. Mist the loaves with oil and sprinkle them with sesame seeds. Cover them loosely with plastic film wrap.

  • Bake the loaves when they've approximately doubled in bulk, or refrigerate them immediately and bake the following day. Both options result in delicious bread, although semolina bread baked after overnight refrigeration will have larger air bubbles.

Tips & Warnings

  • There are many variations in recipes for this bread, altering the proportions of semolina flour to regular flour, the ingredients and method used for the sponge, and how the final dough is raised and manipulated. Try several recipes, if necessary, until you find one that's comfortable for you and results in good bread.

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