When was the last time you licked the plate clean?
In a previous post on sticky toffee cupcakes, I talked about dishes that look ‘too good to eat’. Today it’s the turn of another favourite food expression. While ‘finger licking good’ is a phrase that is sadly slightly tainted (for me anyway) by its association with greasy fast food and a certain white bearded colonel, the idea that something can be so delicious that it makes you want to lick the plate (as well as your fingers) clean is not. It’s appealing and enduring. And something that we all do.
Regardless of whether we’re well versed in table manners or how much our parents shouted at us when we were little, I defy anyone to deny that every once in a while it’s possible to resist putting their face to their plate and licking off that last illicit smear of sauce. I’m often tempted by a plate of pasta or slick of salad dressing, while Carnivorous Boyfriend’s downfall would definitely be gravy, and even if it’s possible to resist face planting into the food, the odd stray finger has been known to find its way in place of a tongue to retrieve those last remaining flecks of flavour.
Before you start to imagine that mealtimes in the little loaf household are some sort of free for all feeding frenzy, I promise this isn’t the case. We’re well aware that licking the plate is something you should limit to the the odd special occasion, at home on your own or with your very nearest and dearest. But that shouldn’t mean anyone should be deprived of those final tempting morsels. And while any sort of over-zealous plate cleaning is never going to be acceptable in the smartest of restaurants, there is a solution we can learn from the Italians for everyday eating when leaving what’s left on your plate just isn’t an option: bread.
Visit any Italian restaurant or home and upon sitting down at the table you’re more than likely to be presented with a big basket of bread. The perfect foil for fruity olive oil, bread is also the ultimate sponge with which to mop up sauces, swiping it across the plate until every last little taste has been allowed its chance to shine. When reading this beautifully written blog the other day, I was delighted to discover that this action is not just an Italian tradition, it actually has a name. Fare la scarpetta (literal translation ‘to do the little shoe’) is an expression used to describe the act of using a morsel of bread to mop your plate clean. While no more acceptable in a formal dining situation than licking the plate (well, perhaps a little), it’s all but compulsory in more relaxed situations, and the perfect way to enjoy your meal to the maximum (as well as an excuse, if ever one was needed, to eat more bread).
Ciabatta is a wonderfully fitting bread with which to do la scarpetta. Literally translated as ‘slipper bread’ on account of its broad, flat shape, the crunchy crust and lovely little holes of ciabatta make it feel like the perfect foodie footwear to dance across your plate. Whether this expression comes from when women would clean the household floors with cloths attached to their feet, or – as blog author Emiko suggests – from the fact that this bread sweeping action was practised by people so poor they would have almost eaten the very soles of their shoes, it’s a charming addition to anyone’s vocabulary and something I’d encourage you to take part in at as many mealtimes as possible.
To make this bread you’ll need to work with a very sticky wet dough, proving it in floured cloths before slinging into a piping hot oven with plenty of steam. The moisture gives the ciabatta its characteristic open texture with lots of lovely air holes, so do respond to your dough and if it feels a little dry (or you’re using a particularly strong flour), add a little more water. This will produce the best texture, and the ultimate little loaf for mopping up all that lovely extra flavour. Licking the plate is the ultimate guilty pleasure, but for when you’re in slightly more polite company, take one for the team and ‘do the little shoe’.
Make sure to start this recipe 24 hours before you want the bread as the ‘biga’ or ferment needs this long to develop before making the dough.
For the ferment
1/4 level tsp fresh yeast
Mix all the ingredients together for about 5 minutes until you have a rough dough. Leave to rest in a bowl covered with cling film for 24 hours.
For the ciabatta
225g strong white flour
Ferment (see above)
25g olive oil
Mix together the flour and yeast in a large bowl, rubbing to combine. Add the ferment to your bowl with the water, oil and salt and mix until combined.
Transfer the dough to your work surface using a plastic scraper and knead for approximately ten minutes, or until the dough is soft, light and elastic. It will be very sticky at first but have patience, and definitely don’t be tempted to add any more flour as this will make your loaves dry. Roll the dough into a ball by pressing each edge into the centre and pressing down with your thumb.
Lightly oil a bowl and place the ball of dough inside. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rest for 1 1/2 hours until it has risen and feels bubbly and light.
Flour your work surface and scrape out the dough from its bowl. Flour the top then press the dough down gently before dividing into two equal pieces. Fold each piece into three by folding one side of the flattened dough into the middle and pressing down to seal. Bring the other side over to the middle and again press down to seal. Finally fold it in half lengthways and seal the edges so you have a long loaf shape.
Place the two pieces of dough onto a well floured tea towel, cover with another tea towel and leave to prove for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven high as it will go. Flour a baking tray or stone. Picking up one ciabatta at a time, turn it over and stretch lengthways at the same time then lay on a baking tray. This will give the loaf its characteristic slipper shape. Slide the loaves onto the baking tray then pop them in the oven, misting the inside with a little water spray to create steam. Turn down the heat to 220 degrees C and bake for about 20 minutes, or until light golden brown.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Eat. Enjoy. Do the little shoe.