Countries with cultures more than a couple of thousands of years old typically get very enthusiastic about their breads, and with reason: for them, bread was truly the staff of life in a world where the food supply could often be precarious.
But their breads also speak specifically to how life has been lived for generations in those places: what you had to bake with, what kind of grains you had to work with, what you had to eat with the bread after the baker's work was done. And Malta is definitely no exception to this rule.
Ħobż is the word for bread in Maltese. It arrived in the language from the Semitic-Arabic side of things - no surprise, as Maltese is as profoundly influenced by Arabic languages as by the Latinate ones. And of course the Romans were here too -- Malta was a self-governing client nation of the Empire -- which is probably one of the reasons that Malta's baking is so good. Rome left a plethora of excellent baking techniques and technology behind it, and Roman-influenced bakers remain some of the best in the world.
Malta's Ħobż comes in many shapes, with local variations The thing that all the varieties seem to have in common is that they're all breads raised using a starter, and therefore (at least technically) are sourdoughs. Though some modern recipes do call for commercial yeast, there are Maltese bakers who insist they never use it, and there's the normal bragging and arguing about who has the best recipe or the oldest starter.
A note first: We recommend you start this process at least a day before you intend to bake the bread. Please read recipe carefully to get a sense of the timeline for making and baking.
RECIPE TO MAKE MALTESE TRADITIONAL HOBZ
First you need to make a starter.
1/4 teaspoon / 2 grams active dry yeast
1/3 cup / 80 ml lukewarm water
2/3 cup / 100 grams strong / plain flour
Place these in a bowl and mix: knead (in the bowl, if you like) for a few minutes. Cover with plastic wrap/clingfilm and leave in a warm place for at least six hours, but preferably overnight.
The next day, or the day after -- whichever day you plan to bake on: refresh the starter. You do this by:
·Halving it. One half will be used to bake your bread.
Take the other half and combine it with:
1/4 cup / 60 ml lukewarm water
2/3 cup / 100 grams flour
Mix in a bowl, knead into a ball, and cover and leave in a warm place for another six hours. Then refrigerate until you need it to bake something else. When you do, refresh it again and halve it as above.
Now you're ready to bake. (Or you will be in a matter of some hours.)
Your next step:
Take the half of the dough starter that you saved, tear it up into little pieces, and add to it in a big bowl:
1 teaspoon or half a package of active dry yeast, whichever is bigger
1 cup / 250 ml lukewarm water
The object here is to get as much of the starter dissolved into the water as you can. Squish it in with your fingers if you have to. Then add:
1-2 teaspoons salt
3 to 3 1/2 cups / 400 grams strong (plain) flour
Add this to the yeast and starter mixture. Mix very well. Add just enough flour to leave you with something that's no longer a batter, just a very soft dough. (Be careful about this, as too much wetness will mean the loaf doesn't have enough structural integrity to bake properly: the air/gas bubbles won't hold during the rise, and it will collapse when you bake.)
When everything is mixed, cover the bowl and let the dough rest for ten minutes.
Then turn it out on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky. This will take about ten minutes. If you have to add flour to keep the stickiness from getting completely out of hand, be sparing about it.
When finished, turn into an oiled bowl (olive oil makes most sense, considering where this bread comes from) and leave to rise in a warm place for 2-5 hours.
Now it gets a little tricky. You must turn the dough once an hour for as long as you let this phase of rising continue. "Turn" is something of a euphemism here. This dough is very soft and pretty much flatly refuses to turn in one piece. But the point is that you do not knock this bread down or knead it any further, as is typical of yeast breads at this stage. You want to keep the gas bubbles in there, as you'll need them during baking. Add more oil if it seems to make the turning easier.
Once this rise is finished, you can store the dough in the fridge if you like to postpone the actual baking time. The fermentation will halt for the time being. No idea as yet whether it might survive freezing at this point: that's an experiment for another time. Expert bakers who have bannetons might consider putting the dough in them at this point. Either way, a short period of refrigeration will make the dough a little easier to handle before the next and final rise.
Now, your last step.
Transfer the dough to a floured worktop. Lightly slash the top. (Some bakers like to sprinkle sesame seeds on it first.) Then gently transfer it to an oiled or floured baking tray. Leave to rise one more time until double -- 45 minutes to an hour. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 230C / 475F or as high as it'll go in that range.
Bake at 230 degrees C / 450-ish degrees F for 30-40 minutes. (Fan oven bakers, lower the temperatures by 20 degrees or so: you know how aggressive those ovens can get.) Keep an eye on the bread: at the 15- or 20-minute mark, check it to see if it needs to be turned around, or the temperature lowered a little.
Remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.
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