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Rustic Italian Bread

Makes 1 large loaf

This Italian bread is based on a recipe by Julia Collin that I found in an issue of Cook's Illustrated. I do not often follow a recipe word-for-word, but I tried with this bread because she claimed it was just like the loaves you can get in good Italian bakeries. Although I will never know if mine came out the same as what she made in their test kitchen, it is absolutely wonderful, very similar to the breads I was able to get years ago from Italian bakeries in Pennsylvania. I suggest that, if you can, get the January/February 2003 issue and read the article thoroughly. They also provide step-by-step illustrations for turning and shaping the dough. I have rewritten the instructions only as needed to help those who have not read the article and to compensate for some differences in the results. I definitely recommend that the flour be weighed rather than just measured. I had to use nearly one cup more than what the recipe suggests to get the weights required. To get the proper texture and crust, it should be prepared in a heavy-duty standing mixer. You must also use a baking stone in the oven. Without these items, you can still make the bread, but the results will not be the same. As for preparation time, it is quite lengthy and must be started a day ahead or very early in the morning. But there is minimal on-task time and I found it to be one of the easiest loaves of bread I have ever made. There are several techniques I learned in making this recipe that I now use for almost every rustic-type bread I make.


   Biga (starter)    Dough

For the biga: Combine flour, yeast and water in large bowl of mixer fitted with dough hook. Knead on lowest speed until it forms a shaggy dough, 2 to 3 minutes. (I am not certain what they meant by 'shaggy', but my dough just looked normal, so do not worry about it.) Transfer biga to a medium bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature until beginning to bubble and rise, about 3 hours. (At 3 hours, mine rises more than it bubbles, but apparently that works.) Refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours (I usually refrigerate mine for about 16 hours).

For the dough: Remove biga from the refrigerator and let set at room temperature while making the dough. Combine the flour, yeast and water in large bowl of mixer fitted with dough hook. Knead on lowest speed until a rough dough is formed, about 3 minutes. Turn mixer off and, without removing bowl or dough hook, cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes.

Remove the plastic wrap; add the biga and salt to the bowl. (The first time I made this, I accidentally added the salt to the dough with the flour, yeast and water above. It still worked. However, I was probably just lucky, because salt should never be added directly with the yeast.) Knead on lowest speed until ingredients are incorporated and the dough forms and clears the sides of the bowl, about 4 minutes. Increase mixer speed to the next setting and knead until the dough forms a ball, about 1 minute. Transfer dough to a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise in a cool, draft-free spot away from direct sunlight until slightly risen and puffy, about 1 hour. (I was not certain what they meant by 'slightly risen', so I just do 1 hour.)

Remove plastic wrap and turn the dough by first sliding a curved plastic bench scraper or flexible spatula underneath, then gently lifting and folding one third of dough toward center. Do the same with the opposite side of dough. Then fold the dough in half, perpendicular to the first folds. Dough should be shaped into a rough square if folded correctly. Replace plastic wrap and let dough rise 1 more hour. Fold again as described above. Replace plastic wrap and let rise 1 more hour.

To shape the dough: Dust work surface liberally with flour. Gently scrape the dough out of the bowl and invert onto the work surface so that the side which was on the top is now on the bottom. Dust the dough and hands with flour. Using minimal pressure, push the dough into a rough 8 to 10 inch square. Fold the top left corner diagonally to the middle. Repeat with the top right corner. Gently roll the dough from the top peak to the bottom until it forms a rough log. Place the seam on the bottom and transfer to parchment paper. Start tucking the bottom edges underneath, working from the center to the ends, and gently stretch the dough until it is about a 16-inch long football-type shape. Dust top liberally with flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

To bake: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position. Place baking stone on rack and preheat oven to 500° F. Using a lame or a very sharp knife, cut a slit 1/2-inch deep lengthwise into the center top of the dough, starting and ending 1-1/2 inches from the ends. Using a spray bottle, spray the loaf lightly with water. Slide the parchment paper with the loaf onto a baker's peel or other large, flat surface, then onto the hot baking stone in oven. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400° and, using the edges of the parchment paper, quickly rotate the loaf 180°. Continue to bake until a deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 210°, about 35 minutes longer. (It will look like the bread will get too dark, but it will not.) Transfer to a cooling rack and remove the parchment paper. Cool to room temperature before slicing.

Notes: Unless I am making bread for company, I cannot use it all at one time. I cut the loaf in half and freeze one portion. Like most breads, this freezes very well for several months. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and place in a sealable freezer bag.