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 "bread and oil" (Ħobż-bi-żejt), 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.
The Food & Cookery of Malta
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.
Stage 1: Making your dough starter
Skip this stage if you already have a large walnut sized dough ball from a previous bread making exercise. Notice the dough starter contains no salt, as salt impedes the fermentation process.
1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) of active dry yeast
1/3 cup (80 ml) lukewarm water (body temperature, 37º C, or just cool enough to put your little finger in)
2/3 cup (100 grams) strong flour (unsifted)
- Place 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.
Stage 2: Refresh your dough starter
If you've already got a dough starter this is the place to start the recipe. The aim is to have enough starter for next time. Notice the dough starter contains no salt, as salt impedes the fermentation process. Nor is there any added yeast - this is, after all, sour dough.
- Halve your dough starter. Use half for in this stage and half for making your bread.
Half your dough starter
1/4 cup (60 ml) lukewarm water
2/3 cup (100 grams) strong flour
- Mix 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.
Stage 3: Make the Bread
Once you've got the
Half your dough starter
1 teaspoon (7 grams) of active dry yeast (you use less, but leave the bread to rise longer)
1 cup (250 ml) lukewarm water
- Mix in a bowl.
- Dissolve the dough starter by squeezing with your fingers.
1-2 teaspoons salt
3-3.5 cups (400 grams) strong flour
- Add 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 until you are ready to bake (8-24 hours). The cold 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.
- When ready to bake transfer to a floured work top.
- Lightly slash the top of the dough.
[Optional] Sesame seeds or additional flour for dusting
- [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.
I mentioned my interest in Maltese bread to a Maltese colleague of mine. He asked some relatives for recipes and this one came back from a friend of a friend called Rachel - an Anthropologist who spent some time studying the lives of Maltese bread makers.
Rachel says ... I m attaching recipe....proportions can vary according to taste so I ve provided a kind of average. he can play around with it though. The ingredients and methods are very simple. Its time you need mainly. This is how I remember them making it.
1kg Plain flour
2 heaped tsp sea salt
2 glasses Water
Dried yeast (this depends on the make, and the room temperature – on average 1or 2 sachets of dried yeast.)
‘’Mother dough’’ (also known as sour dough add a fist sized piece of leftover dough from the day before. If you don’t have any you can increase the dry yeast slightly.)
Mix all the ingredients together until you have a smooth malleable ball of dough that is not sticky (water-to- flour proportion may need to vary according to the weather – and use some of the flour to sprinkle over the work surface). Leave it to rise for 2 hours. Knead the dough again and leave to rise again for another 2 hours in a warm dry place. Shape the loaves into the sizes and shapes one would like. This amount should make 3 medium sized loaves (with a small piece reserved for the next baking). The top of the loaf could be scored with a sharp knife before baking. It is common for loaves to be marked/scored with a cross (known as tas-salib) or with a slice on the side (tas-sikkina)
Bake for about 40 minutes at 250 degrees C or until medium brown (the smaller the loaf the less it will need)
Note: all proportions are variable according to preference and taste. In fact each baker (ghaggien) normally boasts that he has his own recipe. The salt may be increased slightly, but go slow on the yeast. Re yeast – its best to follow instructions of packet you buy. However, remove a small amount as you are also adding the mother dough which contributes to the fermentation (and gives Maltese bread its particular flavour). If you keep some mother dough for the next day, store it in a cool dry and dark place and cover with a tea towel.
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:
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.