First attempt at making Altamura bread: I made a rock

As I mentioned, I have a stash of Italian flours at home and I’m attempting to make breads in different Italian styles. There’s more than pizza, ciabatta and focaccia!

My first attempt was to make a bread in the style of the pane di Altamura. But I was too impatient and didn’t wait until my semi-dormant starter was sufficiently lively again, so I made a nice looking rustic rock. It smells amazing, but it didn’t rise a lot, so it’s quite compact inside (it can be eaten in thin slices, haha!)

A look inside the Altamura bread: it is too dense
A look inside the Altamura bread: it is too dense

That said I got to practice handling the dough and folding it, so there will be less new concepts to learn at once the next time I attempt making this.

For future reference, this is how I made it:

Ingredients

  • 500 g durum wheat flour (although I think it should have been semolina, but close enough)
  • ~ 350 g water
  • ~ 80 g sourdough starter (50:50)
  • 10 g salt

Preparation

  1. Autolysis: add flour and 263 g of water to a bowl, mix well until you end up with a quite dry dough, leave to rest for 45-60 minutes.
  2. Add the rest of water to the starter, dissolving it.
  3. Add this “liquid” starter to the bowl containing the dry dough, and with more patience than ever, try to break down the dough and mix it with the liquid. There will be a lot of lumps and this is really a test of patience. I understand why people use a kneading accessory for handling this!
  4. Once you have managed to somewhat assimilate all the liquid into a dough ball again, scrape any dough bits out of your hands and then cover the dough with a shower cap or cloth. Leave to rest for 10 minutes (it also gives you a break).
  5. Uncover the dough, try to spread it in the bowl as much as possible, and add the salt, distributing it as evenly as possible. Then mix it into the dough, by working it with your hands until you stop feeling “gritty bits”.
  6. At some point you end up with a dough ball again. Feel free to cover it and take a 5-10 minute or so break yourself, because you’re going to need strength for the next step…
  7. It’s time for the slam-it-on-the-counter kneading! The dough still contains lumps but it’s too dry and hard to find them by hand; at the same time it’s wet enough that it sticks to you if you try that. The solution is to knead it this way until it becomes a really soft dough. I did it for 10 minutes, took a 5 minute break, then another 5 minutes, and was tired, so I left it to prove.
  8. Proving: The recipes advise wetting a cloth in water and then placing it in a bowl with the dough on it, rather than the usual advice of dusting a bowl with flour or oiling it. I followed the wet cloth method, although I’m not super sure it worked GREAT as the dough stuck a bit to one part. I had it proving for about 8 hours, the last 3 under the oven light for extra warmth, and it barely did anything because my starter was somewhat defective. Had the starter been more alive, I would have started turning the oven on once I saw the rate of growth progressing fast (say when it was a third or half bigger than the initial volume). Other recipes talk about proving for 12+ hours.
  9. Turning the oven on: I brought it to 250ºC.
  10. Meanwhile I shaped the bread in the “lips” style. I’m not sure what the actual name of this style is, but it’s the one I fancied the most as it had a lot of folds. There seems to be a lot of shaping styles for Altamura breads, so I was a bit confused with so much choice!
  11. Baking: in theory, at 250ºC for about 15 minutes “with a wooden spoon on the door of the oven to let the steam out”, then 250ºC for 15 more minutes, then 220ºC for 15 or 20 minutes more. In practice I could see that things were burning in spots quickly, so I reduced the temperature and moved to top and bottom heating (no fan).
The dough for an Altamura bread, ready to proof
The dough for an Altamura bread, ready to proof

This before and after comparison has turned out quite well actually! It’s fun to see how it DID raise a bit, but less than I would have liked:

Altamura bread shaped, on a floured tray and ready to bakeAltamura bread, baked

Learnings so far

  • Do not be impatient, and wait for the starter to be bubbling with excitement. Good things take their time!
  • This is the first time I have actually wanted a kneading machine to break down the clumps, but the autolysis made a really good effect on such a dry dough. It was quite elastic considering how ‘hard’ it’s meant to be and how not hydrated it was. Very interesting.
  • This flour smells different. It smells sweet, dairy, maybe nutty. I can’t quite pinpoint what is it, but it’s nice.
  • I was skeptical, but wetting your hands does work very well in making sure the dough does not stick to you (I normally only use oil or flour). Come to think of this we already used this technique when we made taralli a few years ago! Maybe I thought it would only work with really dry dough like taralli.

Sources

I ended up skipping recipes in English and went to the source, so I used recipes in Italian. Some sources are relatively hard to follow as they use terms from the Pugliese dialect, but it’s part of the research fun 🥳

  • Official recipe pane di Altamura
  • Another recipe using sourdough starter and with folding demonstration video
  • Another ricetta that uses semola but chooses a different shape
  • This documentary is interesting to see how they bake it in one of the most popular bakeries (forno) in Altamura—they bake some focaccie (in Puglia style) first to see how the wood oven is doing, temperature wise, do any adjustments in fuel (more branches to bring the temperature up really quickly?) then once the bread goes into the oven, they hermetically shut it so the fire dies out when it runs out of oxygen, and they bake in the existing (remaining) heat. And they cannot open the door at any point! But it makes me think that adding steam is allowed as there would be some steam left behind by the focaccie. And if they’re cooking in a hermetically shut oven, I’m sorry, but that’s like baking in a dutch oven. So maybe next time I’ll add steam!

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