The sky always shone blue and cloudless. The sea was of a blue so intense it was impossible not to want to dive into it. I was on the island of Malta to study English and enjoy a vacation after over a year of working full time as a nurse and studying at a university full time. I was having a great time.
Going to Malta for my first study vacation (vacanza studio) was an excellent choice. We had language classes morning and afternoon. In October, the temperature was still mild and the sun welcoming, so we spent our lunch break along the shore. Colorful fishing boats dotted the water in front of us, houses built with a sand-colored stone called globigerina limestone and made pretty with brilliantly colored doors and shutters (porte e persiane), were behind us.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, the school organized a tour. We visited the capital city of Valletta. The postcard above (from the stack I brought back in lieu of taking photographs, which, at the time, I thought I could not do) shows the city's Grand Harbour (Port il-Kbir). Notice the buses parked around the square on the bottom of the image. Riding the bus in Malta was a bit of an adventure. The buses were old, not particularly comfortable and they did not really stop to let you get off, but merely slowed down, so you had to hop off. It was all right once I figured it was the custom of the country.
Our visit to Mdina, the old capital of Malta, located in the center of the island, was enchanting. It is called the Silent City and indeed in the evening it relaxed in a meditative quiet and the atmosphere was quite magical.
I have a lot more stories from my stay in Malta, from visiting Gozo, to admiring this beautiful painting by Caravaggio, from listening to Maltese language, to being introduced to Meissen china, but I need to move on to more edible matters.
Of the traditional Maltese foods that I tasted, I remember lampuki, which I liked. Did I have ftira? I don't remember, but that is what I decided to make to celebrate our stop in Malta.
After browsing around the web a bit, I chose this recipe as guide and made a good number of adjustments to it, mostly in the procedure. Does it taste ike the real thing? I have no idea, but the bread I baked tastes really good and I hope that if I served it to a Maltese expat, it would bring a smile to his/her face. I made it many times during the past three weeks to test various details, so if you come to my house for dinner soon, chances are high you will get a taste as I have a stash in the freezer.
Ingredients for the pre-ferment:
- 4 oz. / 113 g sourdough starter refreshed in the morning (see below for details)
- 4 oz. / 120 ml water at room temperature
- 1 g instant yeast
- 120 g King Arthur Flour all-purpose flour (this is the flour I always use to make bread)
- 10 g whole-wheat flour
Ingredients for the final dough:
- All of the pre-ferment
- 7.5 oz. / 212 g water + up to .5 oz. / 14 g more if needed (see below for details)
- 1 oz. / 28 g high gluten flour
- 2 oz. whole-wheat flour
- Enough King Arthur Flour all-purpose flour to reach a total of 260 g flour
- 1.5 g instant yeast
- 2 teaspoons / 10 g fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon / 15 ml olive oil
- sesame or poppy seeds
Preparing the starter
The morning before you plan to bake the bread, when you refresh your sourdough starter, put in a small container:
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml sourdough starter from the day before
- 2 oz. / 60 ml water
- 2 oz. / 56 g all-purpose flour
Cover the container and let the starter ferment in a draft-free place (in my case, the top of the refrigerator) until the evening, when you'll make the pre-ferment.
Preparing the pre-ferment
Weigh 4 oz. / 113 g sourdough starter prepared in the morning and put it in a mixing bowl. (The leftover can be used to start a new batch of starter.)
Add the rest of the pre-ferment ingredients and mix until well combined. Cover the mixing bowl and place it in a draft-free place (in my case, the top of the refrigerator) until the morning after, when you'll make the bread.
Preparing the bread dough
The morning after, you will see that the pre-ferment is quite bubbly.
Mix all the ingredients of the final dough, using 7.5 oz. / 212 g of water. This is a wet dough and mixing it by hand, like I do, requires some care. Adding flour without having a sense of how much is a risky proposition, so I hold some water (the original recipe had 1 cup / 8 oz.) and mix all the ingredients.
Let the dough rest for 10 minutes and in the meantime, oil a food-grade plastic tub with lid. This will allow you to manipulate the dough later. I didn't get a good shot of the one I use, so take a look at this photo to give you an idea. You need a rectangular container that will allow you to stretch, fold and flip the dough: not too high and large enough.
After the 10 minute rest, mix the dough again for a couple of minutes and decide whether it needs some more water. Keep in mind, again, this is a sticky dough.
Pour the dough into the oiled tub. Wet your hands. If you have never done this, it feels counterintuitive, but indeed the way to handle wet dough is to have wet hands and a wet scraping tool. Stretch and fold the dough:
- Slide your hands under the side of the dough farthest from you, raise the hands and stretch the dough, then fold it over onto the side closer to you.
- Slide your hands under the side of the dough closer to you, raise the hands and stretch the dough, then fold it over onto the side farthest from you.
- Turn the tub 90 degrees and repeat step 1 and 2.
- Slide your hands under the dough, flip it and at the same time turn it 90 degrees. (For this step, you may use a wet scraping tool as helper.)
(In this video, Peter Reinhart shows the stretch and fold technique. He does not use a tub, but the concept is the same.)
Cover the tub and let the dough rest for one hour.
Fold the dough again as described above. Cover the tub and let the dough rest for 30-45 minutes.
Repeat the steps described in the previous paragraph 2 more times.
Lightly flour a silicone baking mat. Uncover the tub and flip it over the baking mat: the dough will slowly drop onto the mat.
With wet hands and delicately, shape the dough into a flat disc and make a hole in the center, as shown in the photo above. Cover it either with the tub upside-down (which is what I do) or with some oiled plastic film. Let proof for half an hour, while you warm up the oven.
Place an oven rack on the lowest level of the oven. Place a small round pan on the oven bottom. Place baking tile on the rack. Preheat the oven to 450 F / 232 C and keep it at that temperature while the dough rests.
Prepare a glass of water. With a mister, spray some water on the surface of the dough. Optionally sprinkle some sesame or poppy seeds on the dough. Transfer the baking mat with the dough onto the hot baking tile. Pour the glass of water into the hot pan on the bottom of the oven: this will create some steam in the oven and give more time to the bread to rise before the crust sets.
Do you even look at your bread rising in the oven? I do: it's mesmerizing.
Bake for about 20 minutes. The final internal temperature should be about 210 F / 99 C.
Transfer the ftira to a rack and let cool completely before cutting. (I don't allow the knife to touch it for at least two hours.)
Slice and enjoy.
A nice open crumb and a delicate sourdough flavor makes this a great bread to put on the table or to snack on. It shines next to a soup, with some cheese on it or with some spread. Basically, a winner.
I ♥ bread
My bread participates to the 18th installment of the Abbecedario culinario della Comunità Europea (European Community Culinary ABC), an event organized by Trattoria MuVarA that will bring us to visit 26 countries of the EU (all except Italy) using the alphabet as guide. R like Ross Fil Forn (Malta) is hosted by Lucia of Torta di Rose.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the pane maltese audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]