If you've ever bought a ciabatta at the bakery or ordered focaccia at a restaurant or made a no-knead loaf, or wondered what the Pugliese or Emilia version of pumpkin ravioli would taste like and how to make it, you've been influenced by Carol Field.
Field, who died last Friday after suffering a stroke the week before, will long be remembered for her 1985 book The Italian Baker, revised in 2011. The book mapped out a world unknown to the bakers who had spent days learning to turn out a baguette following the endless master recipe Julia Child spent months perfecting for the second edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Italian Baker introduced Americans to breads that are commonplace now but were new even in Italy when Field wrote. No one had heard of ciabatta, for example, from the word for “slipper” and a baguette competitor trademarked by a baker in Verona in 1982. Its low, wide shape, which forgave a lack of experience in making a perfect-looking baguette or a conventional sandwich-style Pullman-pan loaf, and more important the sourdough starter that gave it initial flavor, were landmark contributions of her book. Biga, "a simple saltless mixture of flour, water, and a minute amount of commercial yeast," as Field defined it, "left to ferment at cool room temperature for five to sixteen hours," was far easier to knock together than a full sourdough starter but a potent way to achieve developed flavor. It was simple and, for home bakers, revolutionary. The French term for the same starter, levain, acquired commoner currency in French-oriented baking circles. But Field's biga led the way.
So did her the-wetter-the-better overnight-rise coccodrillo bread, from the word for crocodile bread. Though the New York City baker Jim Lahey (by way of Mark Bittman) would popularize it by baking a no-knead bread in a terra cotta cloche, it was Field who stressed that an unmanageably wet dough and long, cool rise overnight in the refrigerator would make a beautifully moist, holey loaf with a marvelously hard, crisp crust perfect for dipping in olive oil.