Ever since graduate school, I have been an avid home baker… at least when I have the time and work doesn’t get in the way. And with bread zooming past $4/loaf in my area, it just makes good sense to bake at home. This is my favorite recipe for an everyday bread, and I’ve made it many times since I originally wrote this. My changes from the original recipe are noted. The original recipe comes from The Ultimate Bread & Baking Book by Linda Collister & Anthony Blake.
3-1/2 cups water
5 teaspoons active dry yeast (2 packets)
5 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening or softened butter (use all butter for best flavor)
2-1/2 tablespoons coarse sea salt, crushed or ground
2-3/4 cups whole-wheat bread flour (all-purpose works fine)
about 8 cups unbleached white bread flour (all-purpose works fine)
3 tablespoons vital wheat gluten (omitted)
1 large egg, beaten
extra flour for dusting
Four large loaf pans, about 8½″ x 4½″ x 2½″, greased (I use 3, for larger loaves)
This recipe uses the sponge technique and is mixed by hand, both of which improve the texture of the loaves. The result is a finely textured soft loaf with a delicate crumb.
Start by warming 1/2 cup of the water to lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast and a teaspoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes or so. (If it doesn’t foam up, the yeast is dead. It’s either too old, or the water was too hot and killed it. Try again.)
Heat the rest of the water to about 150˙F and pour it over the shortening or butter, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Stir until melted and slightly cooled. With a wooden spoon, stir in the whole-wheat flour, followed by about half of the white flour and the vital wheat gluten. Mix thoroughly together. Add the yeast mixture and stir well. Beat in the egg. Beat the sloppy batter for about 3 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel until it becomes spongy, about 10 minutes.
Uncover the sponge and gradually work in some of the remaining white flour, a handful at a time, until the dough is firm enough to turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead in enough of the remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky. The exact amount of flour used will depend on the flour itself, the kitchen’s temperature, and the humidity in the air. Knead for about 10 minutes by hand, until the dough is firm and pliable. (For best texture, don’t overwork the dough!) Put the dough back in the bowl (no need to oil it first) and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let it rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).
Turn the risen dough out onto the work surface and punch it down. Knead lightly for 2 or 3 minutes. Divide the dough into four equal pieces (for smaller loaves, or three for normal-sized loaves). Shape each into a rough ball, then place in the prepared loaf pans. Cover with damp dish towels or plastic wrap and let rest for 10 minutes, which makes the dough easier to work. Flour the work surface. Remove a ball of dough and roll it into a long rectangle, about 11″ x 9″ x 1/2″ thick, with a rolling pin. Starting with a short side, roll up tightly like a jelly roll. Pinch the seam together to seal. Place in the pan seam-side down, tucking the ends underneath. Repeat with the remaining dough balls. Cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
(Note: I was skeptical at first about rolling the dough up like a jelly roll, but the result was a perfectly formed crumb inside the loaf, without too many large bubbles. I have omitted this step since the first time I made this, and it’s worked out just as fine without doing the jelly roll thing.)
During the last 15 minutes of rising, preheat the oven to 400˙F. Bake the loaves at 400˙F for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350˙F. Bake for another 25 minutes or so, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped from the bottom. Turn out onto wire cooling racks. Butter the tops (Viola uses the wrapper from the butter to do this) and let cool completely.