To the right: Possibly the most photogenic bread I’ve ever baked on Flickr.
This is the bread I make when I need plain white bread for everyday sandwich or toast purposes. It has a lovely crumb and is a substantial bread, not an airy-fairy "pan loaf" of the type too damn common in British and Irish supermarkets. (Which is not to mean that it’s one of those loaves you make that refuses to rise and which you therefore desperately characterize as “substantial” so people will think you meant it to come out that way.)
The basic recipe came from the website of Bäckerei Sieber in Au, a town in Canton St. Gallen in Switzerland. The recipe itself is for Tessinerbrot or “bread from Ticino”; down in that southern canton the Roman breadmaking techniques have persisted unusually tenaciously. Since Roman bread had a deserved reputation for being very high-end indeed -- a reputation which Spanish-bred bakers brought to it -- this is a good thing.
The peculiarity about this recipe (from the home baker’s point of view, anyway) is that the recipe manages its ingredients by mass rather than volume. This is how professional bakers do things, though, at least in Switzerland: it seems to get around the problem of how much moisture your local flour is in a mood to absorb today. One caveat: this dough tends toward the wet and sticky end of the bread dough spectrum, so it’s really easier made in a mixer with a dough hook. Also, I sometimes bake this using the bake-it-in-a-preheated-pot technique which derives from the famous Lahey no-knead bread recipe. Pot baking produces a good high rise with little work, and with a really nice crust. (Though sometimes the old-fashioned loaf pan technique produces very superior results, as above. The Bread Fairy was really sitting on my shoulder that day.)
This recipe makes one big loaf. I’ve baked this in anything from a Romertopf to a single US-style loaf pan to a 3-liter lidded casserole of enamelled cast iron. This recipe branches several times: think of it as a Choose-Your-Own-Bread story.
- 660g flour (ideally, a high-grade white bread flour. It really makes a difference, so go out of the way for this if you can.)
- 400g water
- 27g fresh yeast (or one package of fast-rise or regular dry yeast)
- 15g salt
- 33 g oil
Combine them in the bowl of your mixer and beat for about 6 minutes with the dough hook. (Not yet attempted with this recipe: the Raymond Blanc strategy of simply mixing the dough on low speed for the first six minutes, then beating/kneading for another six.) Scrape into a large buttered or oiled bowl, seal with plastic wrap / cling film, and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled.
In about an hour the dough will be ready to deal with. Here the recipe starts branching.
Punch or stir the dough down. Let it rest after the punch-down for ten minutes or so. If you’re going to bake it in a preheated pot (as below), put it aside for its second rise and wait another hour or so, or until it’s just about doubled.
If you’re going to bake in a loaf pan or other open container, then butter the preferred container, shape the dough, put it in there, and set the loaf aside to double again -- usually for an hour or so. Tent a damp cloth over it (using some tall glasses or similar) to keep it from drying out.
At about the half-hour point of the second rise, preheat the oven to the highest heat available to you. Also, if you're going to bake in a loaf pan or something else open: put a baking sheet or similar broad flat container underneath the rack where the pan will go. You're going to throw water on this when the bread's ready to go in.
If you're baking in a lidded pot, put the pot and its lid in at the beginning of the preheating and leave it there. You want it as hot as you can get it.
While the preheating completes, if you're baking in a loaf pan, this is the time to add final touches to your loaf. Egg wash (1 egg beaten with a tablespoon of water) will provide the shine you see above. Use a big pastry brush to wash the top crust with it. Wait till this dries off a bit and then repeat. If you want to sprinkle the loaf with poppy seeds (as above) or sesame seeds, this is the time to do it.
The last thing you may want to do is slit the top of the loaf. This isn't just a cosmetic move: it allows the bread to "spring" higher than the rest of the topcrust structure will let it. WAIT TO SLIT THE CRUST UNTIL THE VERY LAST MOMENT BEFORE THE BREAD GOES INTO THE OVEN.
Now we jump ahead to the point where the oven (and the pot inside if you're using a pot) are fully preheated. Now things start moving faster.
If you're baking in the loaf pan, you now get yourself an 8-oz glass, fill it with warm water, open the oven door, throw the water onto the baking sheet, and close the door fast. Huge amounts of steam will arise. This is exactly what you want. Ignore any bangs or clunks from the expansion of the baking sheet as the water hits it. It'll do that.
If you're baking in the pot, you don't need to worry about adding steam: you're going to be confining it inside the pot with the lid and it'll act on the bread that way.
If you're baking in the loaf pan: Now slash the top of it. Slash it deeper if the first cut doesn't take you at least half an inch deep. An inch will be even better. The bread will collapse somewhat when you do this, so don't panic: it's okay. Now IMMEDIATELY put it gently in the oven and (once the door's closed) lower the heat to 375F / 180C. Let it bake for about 40-45 minutes until you get that kind of pretty color you see above. Take it out of the oven, get it out of the pan, and let it cool on a rack.Let it cool completely before slicing.
If you're baking in the pot: when it's as hot as you think you can possibly get it in your oven, remove the bottom of the casserole to a heatproof surface, and as quickly as you can — without breaking any more of the CO2 bubbles in the dough than you have to — scrape the dough into the pot. Then get the lid out of the oven, cover the pot with it, and fire the whole business back into the oven again. Turn the heat down to 375F / 180C. Bake for 20 minutes: remove the lid: bake for another 20 minutes. And once again, turn out onto a rack to cool. (Miraculously, bread baked using this method will never stick to the pot unless you’re doing a sweet bread that has a lot of sugar in it.)
This bread toasts brilliantly, by the way. I think I’ll go have some now.