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Author Notes: I’ve been on a mission for months to recreate the tender, light, seriously crispy breads we found in Italy. I’ll spare you the list of failures. It’s long. You’re welcome. I finally vectored in a formula predicated on my focaccia, which has some tenderness because of using a portion of all-purpose flour, some milk, and God knows, olive oil. Focaccia’s great structure and flavor also benefit from a preferment, as well as from being retarded overnight in the refrigerator. So I incorporated those qualities, with a more judicious amount of olive oil, into what I wanted to be more of an all-purpose true loaf. I’m finally pretty happy with it. —boulangere
Makes 2 large or 4 small loaves
FOR THE PREFERMENT
8 ounces warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast (or 1/2 teaspoon instant)
2 cups bread flour
FOR THE DOUGH
16 ounces warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or 1 teaspoon instant)
1 glug honey
1/4 cup warm milk
All of the preferment
4 cups bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
- Make the preferment. Whisk the yeast into the water and add the flour. Stir to blend. It will be a bit stiff. That’s okay; it will loosen up as it proofs. Cover tightly with plastic and let proof at room temperature until it has visibly risen and even looks a bit bubbled beneath the surface of the dough. This will take a few hours. Refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, remove the preferment from the fridge at least an hour before you plan to mix your bread dough so it can lose its chill.
- When ready to mix, add the water and yeast to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Whisk to blend, then whisk in the honey and the warm milk (nuke it for a few seconds).
- Add the preferment, bread flour, all-purpose flour, salt, and olive oil. Mix until all ingredients are well blended and no visible streaks of flour remain, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the mixer and cover the bowl with a piece of plastic. Allow dough to rest for 20 minutes. This is called an autolyse. It permits the protein strands to become fully hydrated without the stress of mixing at the same time. By the time you turn the mixer back on, you’ll be amazed by how quickly the dough comes together around the hook, and you actually see long, thin strands of gluten as they leave the sides of the bowl. After turning the mixer back on, knead for 5 minutes. This can a difficult dough to windowpane because it is so tender, but you will be able to tease a walnut-sized piece over your fingertips to a good thinness.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Pan-spray the mixing bowl and return the dough, turning it over once. Cover the bowl with your same piece of plastic and allow to proof at room temperature until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Now you have some choices. I frequently shape, proof, and bake one loaf on the same day I mix the dough. It’s my way of having my so-to-speak cake and eating it too. I get a gorgeous, light, crusty loaf of fresh bread to have with dinner, and the next day get 1 to 3 MORE loaves (depending on how you shape them) of even lighter, crustier, more gorgeous bread. The overnight retarding of the dough permits yeast and bacterial action to produce a bread of great character and flavor, so it is definitely worth doing so with at least part of your dough. So, once the dough has doubled after its first proofing, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide off a piece of it: a half or a quarter, depending if you want to make 2 large loaves in total, or 4 smaller baguette-sized loaves. Re-spray the bowl and return the balance of the dough to it, and cover it with a fresh piece of plastic. Shape the piece of dough as you wish: into a round boule, a long thin baguette, or an oval batârd. Set it on a baking sheet lined with parchment, or if you have an oven stone, just proof it on a sheet of parchment. Dust the top with flour and cover lightly with your piece of plastic. Let proof at room temperature until doubled, about an hour.
- When the dough is about half-proofed, set your oven to 450 degrees. If you have a baking stone, set it in the oven at the same time. I long ago sacrificed a small cast iron skillet to the oven. I just leave it on the floor of the oven all the time, so that when I bake bread that needs the crisp, crackly crust, I add a cup of boiling water (very carefully, mind you) to the skillet and shoot the bread that I’ve proofed on a sheet of parchment right in onto the stone. Give both some thought. Together they make a significant difference in the quality of the final bread.
- This part goes fast: just before you put the bread in the oven, pour the hot water into the skillet if you have one, and carefully set it on the oven floor. Slash the bread diagonally 3 or 4 times with a serrated knife held at an acute angle. Get the bread into the oven. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Don’t open the oven until it goes off. Then, re-set the timer for another 15 minutes, open the oven and quickly rotate the bread 180 degrees. The bread is done when it reaches an internal temperature of between 200 to 205 degrees. A boule will take about 5 minutes longer than a baguette shape.
- When done, remove from the oven and cool on a rack for about 15 minutes before slicing. It’s worth the wait.