I've waxed poetic about baking bread before. And, again, I've always felt the best part of baking your own bread is being able to eat it warm, 20 minutes after it has baked.
It's always bothered me, though, that I could never find that perfect basic ingredient mix that would produce a loaf that had that "artisan" look to it and tasted so good that it was worth the effort to bake myself, rather than visit a bakery.
Let's face it -- high end grocery stores are churning out some pretty nice looking loaves and attaching all kinds of cool names to them. Taste? Well, I guess they taste okay. They don't taste bad.
So, anyway, my quest has been to bake a really nicely-textured, tasty and visually pleasing loaf of bread using a process I could deal with on a regular basis. A custom-built wood-burning stone bread oven out back would produce a wonderful loaf of bread, but I can't see myself going out there every day to fuss with that unless I was, say, producing a loaf for the Last Supper or something.
So this has been a kind of quest, one that I thought would be easy enough since all I had to do is Google "Italian Bread" and -- voila -- a recipe would appear.
Alas, no. I had some very specific qualities in mind and no single recipe fit. So it was time for experimentation.
I never produced anything inedible, but I was beginning to think that maybe the qualities I was looking for just weren't do-able in a plain old kitchen oven.
Finally on Monday I produced a loaf that had a great flavor and a perfect crust. The only thing missing was texture, but it was coming close. The most pronounced improvement was that I had gotten rid of that "yeasty" taste that so often plagues homemade bread, even ones using a sourdough starter instead of yeast. That's a lovely flavor for sandwich bread. But for Italian bread? Uh-uh.
Friday I actually was abandoning my quest for the perfect loaf and seeing if I could manifest a couple loaves of bread with a minimum amount of equipment. This was in preparation for our vacation to Outer Banks (graciously being provided by the Mr. and Mrs. Dark Garden), where I would feel really stupid lugging my Artisan mixer (because I am already lugging my ice cream maker).
Turns out that was the key. Even though I rely on the Artisan only to do the initial mixing of the dough and knead it by hand, it still made a huge difference (to me, anyway) in texture to mix and knead it start to finish by hand. From my standpoint it was wonderful -- I love to mess with dough.
The ingredients are simple:
6 to 6-1/2 cups bread flour
2-1/2 tsp. dry yeast
2 T. sugar
2 T. olive oil
2-1/4 c. hot tap water (around 115 degrees F)
1-1/2 tsp. salt
I make a soup of the the yeast, sugar and 1/4 cup of the water. While that sits, I measure out about 6 cups of the flour onto my kneading surface (I have a granite-topped bakers' cart). Once the yeast is dissolved and foamy, I make a well in the center of the flour and pour the yeast mixture and the olive oil. Gradually feed the flour into the liquid until all the liquid is absorbed.
Add salt to remaining 2 cups of hot water and gradually incorporate into dough. Begin kneading (cleaning up all over your surface as you knead). Add extra 1/2 flour as needed to keep dough from sticking. Knead until "smooth and elastic," as all the books say. I stop kneading -- reluctantly -- usually after about 10 minutes -- just enough time for a nice, quick meditation.
It really will feel like a baby's behind when it's ready for the first rising (Dark Garden is throwing up just a little in his mouth right now). Slap it in an olive-oil coated bowl, flip is once to coat, cover with oiled wax paper and put in a warm place to rise until doubled, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
Let me insert something here about rising dough. Yeast can only rise so much. If it's doubled in size and an hour has not yet passed, pull it anyway. The rising time is for the dough, not you. If it rises too much the first time, when you go to shape it and put it in for a second rising, it will have nowhere to go.
Anyway, punch down, dump onto your kneading surface and let it rest 10 minutes. Divide in half, shape into oblongs and place on baking surface (I use an upside down sheet cake pan sprinkled with semonlina flour, but you can use a parchment-lined cookie sheet or, if you're lucky enough to have one, a baking stone lined with the semolina flour).
Brush with egg white, sprinkle with topping if you like (toasted sesame seeds, poppy seeds, cracked wheat, etc.). Let rise another half hour.
Set oven for 350 degrees. Place loaves in oven, mist with water and bake five minutes. Mist with water again, bake another five minutes. Mist once more. Bake an additional 35-40 minutes. Loaves are done when they make a hollow sound when you thump them.
Cool at least 20 minutes before slicing. It doesn't cool any faster if Heir 2 stands over it, threatening it with a knife.
Editor's note: We are fully aware we cannot come close in texture to bread baked in a bread oven. But life is too short to wait to own a stone oven before baking bread.