When we moved to Maine from Michigan one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was how far it was to a bakery that sold good, rustic loaves of bread. There are great bakeries in Maine but all of them were at least a 40 minute drive from our house. So I learned to bake my own bread.
Even now, when I live in a place with bakeries on just about every corner, I still love to bake my own bread. There is something about creating food from flour, water and yeast that makes me feel happy. Kind of like making cloth from two sticks and a string.
The first bread baking book I used was Daniel Leader’s book, Bread Alone.
The first recipe I tried, and the one I still turn to over and over again, was the loaf he calls “A Learning Recipe: Classic Country-Style Hearth Loaf.”
Honestly, this recipe has never failed to turn out wonderful bread. I still make it whenever my sourdough starter is not ready to use, and even sometimes when it is.
The recipe begins with a quick starter called a poolish that contains water, flour and a little bit of yeast. The poolish ferments for as little as two hours or as long as overnight. The longer it goes, the more flavorful the final bread.
Once the poolish is ready, it gets mixed with more water, flour, yeast and salt. Leader likes you to knead the bread for a long time, but given my recent reading about little- or no-knead loaves, I decided to reduce the kneading time and instead allow the dough to sit (or autolyse) for about twenty minutes after all of the flour had been added. A little bit of kneading after that point, and the dough was ready to rise.
Two hours later, I divided the dough into two loaves and set them to rise again in my banneton, willow baskets made especially for bread.
This second rise took about an hour at which point the loaves were ready to bake.
About forty-five minutes before the loaves were ready to go into the oven I had pre-heated a baking stone and a cast iron pan. I turned the loaves out onto a peel dusted with coarse corn meal
and slashed the top with a sharp razor, or lame.
I slid the loaves onto the baking stone and added about 1/2 cup of water to the pre-heated cast iron pan to create steam in the oven. After about 10 minutes the loaves had risen even more (a phenomenon appropriately called oven-spring).
And after about 45 minutes, they were done!
The hardest part is listening to them crackle in a room filled with that sweet just-baked bread smell and knowing I have to wait for them to cool before cutting into them.