This bread is easy to make, it keeps well, and it makes the most delicious toast you have ever eaten.

There are artesian wells in and around Charleston where people of all races, classes, ages, and ethnic backgrounds meet to fill their jugs. Though too sulfurous for some, the water loses its sulfur taste in boiling. Well water can be a clean and safe alternative to tap water for bread baking, as the chlorine and other chemicals that Charleston and other cities add to their municipal water supplies can kill yeast.

The yeast should be fresh, not dried. Make sure it is fresh: it should have a sweet, not sour, aroma of yeast, and it should be moist and uniformly smooth. The salt that you use should be free of yeast- destroying chemicals. Use a pure salt such as kosher, pickling, or sea salt; check the labels for additives.

The first time you make this recipe, I advise using high-gluten (bread) flour and long-grain white rice. You may wish to add some whole-wheat flour or wheat germ to the dough or use a different rice. The more flavorful the rice you use, the more flavorful your bread will be. If you use a brown rice, increase the amount of water accordingly, as it will absorb nearly twice as much water as white rice.

Follow this recipe very carefully and respond to your own batch of dough as it demands. (This is a recipe for which you must weigh ingredients; volumes will be too variable.) Every dough, every quart of well water, the humidity of each day and each oven is different. But don’t be discouraged; you should have an excellent-tasting bread that makes wonderful toast, even if you judge the rising incorrectly or bake it at the wrong temperature.

This recipe makes 3 loaves in standard bread pans. Half of the recipe makes a big round loaf that you can bake on a baking stone or under a big overturned flowerpot, as Karen Hess suggests, to imitate the brick ovens that produce nice crusts. It will weigh about 4 pounds. You can make a smaller batch than called for in the recipe, but I don’t recommend a larger one, simply because it is too big to handle. You will need a very large bowl, about the size of an antique wash basin. Weigh the rice, the yeast, and the flour before beginning.

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Ingredients

  • 1 pound rice
  • 3 tablespoons pure salt
  • 2 quarts well or spring water (or more if you’re using brown rice)
  • 2 ounces fresh compressed yeast
  • 4 pounds unbleached bread flour

Method

Add the rice and salt to the water and boil in a large pot, uncovered, until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is quite soft, about 20 to 30 minutes. Place the rice in a very large bowl. Set aside to cool.

When the rice is cool enough to handle, it should be about right for the yeast (below 120°). Add the yeast and mix into the rice, then work in the flour, kneading and folding it all together in the bowl until you have a smooth, elastic loaf. It will take very nearly all the flour and about 10 minutes of time. (Note: you will get out of a loaf of bread only what you put into it. Put on a favorite record and get into a good mood while you knead the loaf. If you try instead to take out your anger on the dough, you will end up with a knotty, uneven bread. )

Wipe the rim of the bowl clean, then cover the entire bowl tightly with plastic wrap. If your bowl is not large enough to allow the bread to double in size, you may want to lightly brush the top of the dough with oil or butter to keep it from sticking to the plastic. Now cover the entire bowl with a towel or blanket and set in a warm, draft-free place to rise. It may take a couple of hours, or it may take all day or night (“warm” is relative), depending on many factors; but it is usually ready in my kitchen—which stays very warm, even in winter—in about 2 hours.

Grease 3 bread loaf pans and set aside. When the dough has doubled, punch it down, knead it lightly so that it is evenly textured again, divide it into 3 parts, and roll each part into a log that fits nicely into the pan, with all edges on the bottom and only the smooth top showing. Cover the 3 pans with the plastic and the towel or blanket again and place on top of the stove while the oven preheats to 450°. The loaves need rise only halfway this time—say, to the tops of the pans. Check them at about 30 minutes. I find that they are often ready then, and the oven should be well heated.

Bake the loaves in a classic “falling” oven, simulating the gradually falling temperatures of a wood-fired stove: 15 minutes at 450°, then turn the oven down to 400° and bake for another 15 minutes. (You might peek to see that the loaves are baking evenly. Sometimes ovens have “hot spots”: if so, rotate the loaves.) After 30 minutes (total) of baking, take the loaves out of the pans and return them naked to the oven. If, at this point, the loaves seem to be browning too quickly, turn the oven down to 350°; otherwise, leave it at 400°.

From this point you must watch them, turning them on their sides so that they brown evenly all over and waiting for that special moment when a thump on the bottom of the loaves gives a reassuring, resounding report that they are done. A dull thud sends them back to cook more. Do not, however, be so constantly in the oven that it stays fired—it should be hovering at the lower temperature at this point. It will take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes for the loaves to finish cooking. When they are done, remove them to racks to cool and resist the temptation to cut them while they are hot.

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