When an American chef went searching for a special bread that would stand up to his meat-centric menu, he didn’t know it would take him four years and include schlepping heavy iron molds in his suitcase across Italy.
“I was told: ‘It’s impossible,’” recalls chef Nathan Anda, the brains and the brawn behind Red Apron Butcher and The Partisan in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington, D.C. That’s because he was looking for a way to recreate a traditional peasant bread from Modena he found on the Internet called tigelle (tih-GEL-ay.) And at the time, very few people in the U.S. had any idea what he was talking about.
Before we talk about the trip, let’s talk about what makes tigelle so appealing. Think of them as the lovechildren of an English muffin and a pancake. Tigelle are shaped like disks, slightly browned (thanks, Maillard!) crisp on the outside, and soft and steamy on the inside, ready for the spread of your choice. Or, you can just wolf them down, plain and yeasty and hot.
While it sounds decadent, the bread has its roots in poverty. For ages, deep in the Apennine Mountains near Modena, home of the famous Balsamic vinegar and site of a 2012 earthquake, farming families gathered around the hearth to bake the evening bread. They packed balls of dough called crescentine in tigelle, or disc-shaped clay molds, made from earth dug deep under their chestnut trees.
The molds were already heated in the coals of the day’s fire, and when stacked on top of one another into a tower shape, didn’t take long to bake. (These days, the bread itself is generally called tigelle, which is a little like calling potato chips a fryer, but the name stuck.) When the tigelle were ready, the family took the bread out of the molds, split them in half, and slathered on a kind of pesto made from lardo, rosemary, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano, according to Mastro Tigella, an Italian website devoted to all things tigelle.
According to a historic account on tigelle mold manufacturer Balestri’s website, the family would stand around the fire and wait for the bread to cook, and were able to “forget for awhile the problems and fatigue of the hard life of those times.”
Eventually, the clay tigelle molds gave way to more modern iron and aluminum presses with long handles called tigelliere that could make four or more tigelle at a time. And then much later came the electric versions, which can make eight tigelle in one go. The molds sometimes have a decorative flower or symbol inside them on both sides, which gets embossed on the dough.
The iron presses were what Anda, the American chef, finally found when he made a last-ditch stop at a hardware store on his final night in Tuscany. He carried them around for the rest of his trip.
Once he had the tigelliera, it took Anda another two years to come up with a recipe that would stand up to his prosciutto and speck sandwiches. He found Italian recipes for varying amounts of flour, water, milk, yeast and lard. He translated them and dutifully copied them, but considered the resulting tigelle too dense.
“I wanted it to be airy on the inside,” he says.
So he played around with the recipe some more. Once he swapped out lard for olive oil, he says, he felt the bread had the right texture to hold sandwiches and spreads of all sorts.
If you want to try tigelle, try the recipe on this Italian food blog, Cooking Is Like Love, although finding a proper press will be difficult. Or you can just swing by The Partisan–one of the few restaurants in the States that has them.
Know where else you can find tigelle outside of Italy? Let us know in the comments below.