This Italian country bread is divine. It has been our family tradition the last several years (pre-China) to make about 140 loaves of it at Christmas time, which we then share with neighbors. This year, again, that will not happen, even though we technically have a whole week after we arrive in China to get ready for Christmas. This year, if you want the bread, you are going to have to make it yourselves (but only 2 loaves at a time). The recipe instruction may seem complicated, but really this is one of the easiest, and most forgiving recipes for bread that you’ll ever find. The photos don’t line up with the text, but I gave each photo a caption that matches the text of the recipe instructions, so just scroll through to find the photo you need.
- The night before, you make a sponge. (This is a way of giving the yeast a chance to grow and develop flavor for your bread, not that nasty bacteria-laden thing sitting at the back of your kitchen sink.) To make the sponge, combine 1 teaspoon active dry yeast, 1/3 cup lukewarm water, 2/3 cup room temp milk (I personally just pour really hot water into really cold milk before I dump it in with the yeast.), 1 teaspoon honey or sugar (this helps wake up the yeast), and 2 cups all-purpose flour. Mix this together really well and then cover it loosely and let it sit 4 hours to overnight.
The length of time it sits will determine the quality of the flavor. If you need to, this sponge can be stored in the fridge for up to a week. Note: You can use water instead of milk, but it will slightly alter the flavor. When we make the Huge Batch we don’t usually use milk in the interest of keeping things a little simpler.
- The next day (or after 4 hours) you use the sponge to make the dough.
Put the sponge into a large bowl, add 1 teaspoon yeast,
1 Tablespoon salt,
2 cups room temperature water, and stir well.
- then add 5 to 5 1/2 cups of flour, one cup at a time. (For this post, I’m using whole wheat flour, because I have a bunch of it on hand that I want to use up before I move. You can use regular all-purpose flour or a little of each, it doesn’t matter.)
After three cups of flour it looks about like this.
After four cups of flour it looks like this.
At 5 1/2 cups I have to start using my hands because the dough is too stiff for me to stir with the wooden spoon-thing I’m using.
The dough is still pretty tacky at this point, which is about where you want it.
Knead it a little more in the bowl or on a lightly floured surface.
If you pound the dough with your fist it will help develop the gluten better (warning: flour will also fly everywhere) and your loaf will shape more easily and rise higher. Let it sit for 5 or 10 minutes and then the dough won’t feel as tacky anymore when you knead it briefly one more time.
Place the dough in a large ungreased bowl,
cover loosely with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let it rise for 3 hours to overnight. The dough should triple in volume.
- After one hour in a warm room (my single-pane, dining room windows face west and it’s 3:30 in the afternoon when I took this photo), this dough has already doubled.
I don’t mind because I’d like to have this bread with dinner, so I’m going to have to shorten my 3 hour rise time to accommodate my lack of planning today. Yes, the price of this faster rise will be a loss of flavor quality.
Note: If the weather is hot and your kitchen is too, you may not be able to let it go the whole 3 hours + of rising time. Pay attention to it to learn what is required where you live.
- After the rising, remove the dough from the bowl and knead lightly into 1 large or two smaller rounds.
Let it rise at room temperature (see the note above) on a floured or greased baking sheet for 1 to 3 hours.
I cover it with a cloth, others prefer not to. Note: For this batch of bread, I’m using my clay pots to bake the loaves in. I’ve never tried this before, so we’ll see how it works out.
- Preheat oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 Celsius).
Slash a criss-cross design into the top of the loaves
Slide the pans into the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes.
- Cool on a rack. (I don’t actually have a cooling rack here in China, so I just manage the best I can.)
This bread is best if you let it completely cool and then reheat it, but who’s kidding whom here? Just try and let it sit 20 minutes before you cut into it. I promise, it really is better if you can be patient.
Merry Christmas! Enjoy your bread! We like to eat ours with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and Italian herbs. I don’t have balsamic here in China so I have to make do with apple cider vinegar. It works okay.
winner-winner, chicken dinner 🙂