[Fangakima, Vava'u Group, Kingdom of Tonga; 18°42 S / 174°02 W]
The Vava'u Group of the Kingdom of Tonga is a archipelago of many tiny islands dotted with caves (Swallow's Cave looking out is image above). In the anchorages, the water is clear and the brisk breezes make the coconuts palms sway gently, evoking a sense of calm and inviting idyll time. While at Fangakima (the Tongan name for the spot later named by a Spaniard as Port Maurelle) we had the time to develop a pre-ferment (biga is the Italian word) version of our basic bread which has evolved into a bread reminiscent of the Italian Ciabatta.
Pre-ferment (night before baking day) - the "biga"
1/4 cup (60 ml) fresh water at room temperature (~ 80 F)
1/8 tsp. dried bread yeast
1/8 tsp. fine sea salt
~1/8 tsp. honey
2 Tbs. whole wheat flour
2 Tbs. rye flour
~1 cup white (all purpose) or bread flour
Add water to a small covered food storage container with a capacity of approximately 1 cup (220 ml). Add yeast, sea salt and honey and whisk briskly with a fork until foamy. Add whole wheat and rye flours and whisk again until foamy. Begin to add white flour in tiny increments while continuing to whisk. Add only until the dough begins to pull away from the container's sides. Incorporate any flour around edges into dough ball and cover tightly. Place immediately into a refrigerator and leave overnight.
1 3/4 cups (415 ml) fresh water at room temp
~ 1 lb (454 g) white (all purpose) or bread flour
1 Tbs. light vegetable oil
~ 1 Tb. coarse ground corn (e.g. polenta), optional
Remove biga from refrigerator and add this to the water in a large (1 gallon or 4 L capacity) covered bowl. Whisk with fork until the biga becomes dissolved in the water. Slowly begin to add white flour, continuing after each addition to beat with a fork. Continue adding flour in small batches like this, stirring vigorously with a fork until the mixture is just thicker than pancake batter and has no lumps. You are almost done. Add flour in smaller increments and stir in until the dough just begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, "round up" and look dull (not shiny). With a rubber spatula, scrape any dough or flour from the sides of the bowl and tuck under ball of dough.
Cover and let rise, 2 or more hours until the top of the dough is almost flat, it is shiny and full of bubbles.
Prepare a cookie sheet (or a bread pan if you prefer) by spreading a thin layer of light vegetable oil (e.g. sunflower) on the surface. Optionally, add coarse ground corn and pat and turn the pan is covered with a thin layer of corn.
Pour a large quantity (2 cups or more) of flour onto a pastry cloth or board. With a rubber spatula gently move the dough—in a single piece—onto the floured surface, gingerly scraping along the edges of the dough as you pour to keep it from ripping. Take a good handful of flour and liberally cover the dough surface. Gently lift the left side of the dough and fold the dough in half, completely covering the flour; apply another liberal coating of fresh flour. (A pastry cloth works well for this because you can just take hold of the cloth and use this to fold dough.) Next take the top of the folded dough and fold again in half, this time towards you and then knead once or twice only with good force with the base of your thumbs and palms. Turn dough 90 ̊, sprinkle once again with flour and fold like a letter (in thirds) and knead once only. Repeat the 90 ̊turn, sprinkle, trifold and single knead two or three more times but JUST UNTIL the dough begins to feel rounded and springy and begins to resist your pushing on it. Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter and roll over the folded dough so the seam is down. Gently transfer to cookie sheet.
Let rise (proof) until the dough is rounded and just begins to NOT spring back completely when touched very lightly with your finger (at any place on its rounded dome). Proofing time will vary depending on the ambient temperature. When you think bread is approaching readiness, heat oven to 400 ̊F. Bake bread at 400 ̊ for 20 minutes. Turn bread pan 180 degrees (this is not necessary if the heat in your oven is uniform) and lower temperature to 350 ̊F. Continue baking for 40 minutes more (one hour total). Turn off oven but DO NOT open oven door. Allow bread to remain in oven for 10-15 more minutes.
Immediately remove bread onto a rack or plate that will allow for air circulation under the bread while cooling. Once cool, keep wrapped in a clean, dry, cotton towel.
Note: Recipe yields one very substantial loaf. If making a second loaf, use a separate large covered bowl and make breads in parallel.