Plain Old Bread
1 Tbsp. (1 packet) active-dry yeast
2 1/4 cups warm water
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
6-7 cups unbleached white flour
Most recipes want you to use the whole envelope of yeast. This means the first rising will take only about an hour and the second maybe forty-five minutes to an hour - particularly if you put it in a warm place, which is what they usually suggest. Some go as far as telling you to put the dough in a gas oven warmed by a pilot light.
That works fine. If that's the kind of bread you want. Grocery-store bread. Wonder bread. Remember that? The stuff we ate when we were kids. It was white - a brilliantly unreal white - and it had the feel of a damp sponge. When you took a bite, it left an imprint of your teeth.
So, the first thing I do is cut the yeast in half. You don't want the dough to set a new land-speed record. What you want is a long, slow rise to build the kind of texture and flavor that makes people think you paid $5.95 for this loaf at the European Gourmet Bakery.
Combine the yeast with the water in a large crockery bowl, stir in the sugar, and let it sit for a few minutes while measuring the flour into another bowl.
Stir in flour. When it clumps together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl turn it out on the counter and knead for ten minutes, adding enough flour to keep it moving. Then knead in the salt. Dead last. Because salt strengthens the gluten and makes the dough fight you.
When it's smooth and elastic enough to spring back when poked, oil a big bowl, slosh the dough around in it, making sure the entire surface is oiled. Cover with a damp towel. Set as far from the stove as possible (a wine cellar would be nice).
With half the yeast, it'll take twice as long to rise.
Shape into two loaves.
Give them a two-hour rise.
Spritz them with water for a crackly crust.
Bake at 425 for thirty minutes.
These directions are quoted directly from the novel Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks. When I first read the recipe, I was confused about the amount of yeast and made it with 1/2 Tbsp. as instructed (but that's not the amount in the ingredient list!). The second time I tried the recipe, I used 1 Tbsp. The first loaves were quite dense compared to the second batch, which were light and airy. Both were delicious, so I guess it's a matter of preference.
Hendricks doesn't mention anything about punching the dough down after the first rise, which I decided to do anyway. I also briefly kneaded the dough, then cut it in two with a sharp knife, then shaped it into two long rectangles, turning and pinching a seam along the bottom of each loaf before placing them in metal bread pans. (I've been told glass is good so you can keep an eye on the browning of the bottom of the loaf).
I was worried about the high temperature and decided to check some other bread recipes to see what they recommended. I went with 350 the first time around and 400 the second time I made the bread. I recommend 400 for 30-40 minutes.
Recipe adapted from Judith Ryan Hendricks' Bread Alone.