Italian Bread

With the uncharacteristic cool August weather here, it’s been feeling like fall is nipping at summer’s heels, and with that, I was hungry for spaghetti and meatballs, which is traditional fall and winter Sunday dinner fare. As a result, I spent most of yesterday afternoon in the kitchen making a big pot of sauce, meatballs, and fresh pasta. As if a light bulb went off, I realized the only thing missing was a fresh loaf of Italian bread to soak up all the extra sauce on my plate. I had made Italian bread once before, and it was very very good, but it also required a preferment, meaning that it had to sit overnight. So I went in search of a recipe that could deliver some fresh bread in a few short hours. I found one, and it was fabulous – a perfectly crisp outer crust and a soft, chewy interior with a tight crumb.

So the recipe states that this makes “one large loaf” but I’d have to argue over the definition of “large”, as this loaf was more along the lines of GINORMOUS. Seriously, it’s a free form bread, and it ended up being the length of my sheet pan (18″) and at least two-thirds of the width. Not that it intimidated me – I bet I ate at least an eigth of the loaf with dinner, sending me immediately into a carb coma. It was a fabulous fresh loaf of bread, and one that I will likely make over and over to pair with spaghetti dinners.

Some notes on the recipe:
* This is a very dense dough. In fact, I was a bit concerned when I pulled it off of the dough hook and thought that the bread might end up being dry and tough, but it was far from it. So just a fair warning, that this dough may not be as soft and elastic as you may be used to.

* When shaping the dough into a loaf, pay close attention to sealing the seams very tightly as you roll the loaf up. This opens up considerably in the oven, so you don’t want the loaf unrolling on you!

*I baked this on an inverted baking sheet that I covered with parchment paper.

* The recipe calls for squirting this with a spray bottle of water in 3 minute intervals when it first begins baking, but I don’t have any spray-type vessels in my kitchen. Instead, I utilized the same method that was used to create a crisp outer crust on the French bread I recently made: place a metal pan (I used a roasting pan) on the very bottom rack of the oven when you preheat the oven. Then, a few minutes before you place the loaf in the oven, pour a cup of water into the pan to create steam.

Italian Bread

Yield: 1 large loaf

Prep Time: 30 minutes (active) 2 hours (inactive)

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours 15 minutes

Ingredients:

2 cups lukewarm water (~100°F)
1 package active dry yeast
5 to 5¾ cups bread flour
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2½ teaspoons salt
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Directions:

1. Stir the yeast into ½ cup of the warm water. Let proof as you measure out the dry ingredients.

2. Combine 5 cups flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the yeast mixture, remaining water and olive oil. Using a dough hook attachment, mix on lowest speed of electric mixer (stir setting on a KitchenAid) until a dough starts to form, adding more flour as needed. Knead on low speed (2 on a KitchenAid) for 7 minutes. Transfer dough to lightly floured surface and need by hand for 1 to 2 minutes, or until a smooth, firm, elastic dough is formed.

3. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and spray the dough with a thin coating of cooking spray. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to proof in a warm, draft-free place for 1½ hours or until doubled in size.

4. Remove the plastic wrap, punch down and flatten the rounded dough with the heel of your hand. Roll the dough up tightly, sealing the seam well after each roll. The dough should be elongated and oval-shaped, with tapered and rounded (not pointed) ends.

5. Preheat the oven lined with a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles to 425°F.

6. Place the dough on a baker's peel heavily dusted with flour, or alternately on an inverted baking sheet. Allow the dough to proof, loosely covered with a floured canvas cloth, for 30 minutes, or until doubled in size.

7. Brush the dough with the egg white and sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top. Using a razor blade or sharp knife, slash the dough lengthwise about 1/4-inch deep, keeping the blade at a 45 degree angle.

8. Spray the dough generously with water from a water bottle and place in the oven on the baking stone. Immediately close the oven and bake for 3 minutes. Open the oven door and spray the dough again with the water bottle. Close the oven door and bake for an additional 3 minutes before spraying the dough for a third time (the spraying of the dough will ensure a crisp golden brown crust).

9. Bake the dough for a total of 45 minutes, or until a hollow thud is heard when tapping the bottom of the bread. Allow the bread to cool before slicing.

(Adapted from Dawn's Recipes)