Plain Wonderful White Bread

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Makes:

    3½ pound

    if baked in La Cloche)

Appears in

There is a satisfaction derived from the act of baking bread that I get from no other kitchen activity. Not for me a bread machine that would rob me of the pleasure of feeling the dough come to life under my hands. Just knowing that the bread dough is rising in a cool spot in the back room fills me with unspeakable contentment. Often, when I know I will be forced to sit all day proofing a manuscript, I reward myself by making bread so that I will have an excuse to get up every hour to check its progress and punch it down.

Perhaps the most exciting part about making bread is that the yeast is a dormant living organism that you bring to life, feeding it so that it will grow and expand, providing texture and flavor to the bread. It also seems utterly amazing that just flour, water, yeast and a bit of sugar and salt, judiciously proportioned, can be transformed into the most perfect loaf of bread.

Many years ago, when I was a freshman at the University of Vermont, I met a bearded backwoodsman the students called “Bert the beatnik.” As he vigorously stirred his sourdough starter, he informed me that “a woman should be able to bake bread.” I received this edict as a great fundamental truth and it aroused in me the feeling that I would never really be a woman if I hadn’t at least made one loaf of bread. Seventeen is an age when girls ask each other how they will know when they are truly women. Some thought it would be when they lost their virginity, but I knew differently. Bread would do it. This was the early Sixties. Before hippies, before Vietnam, even before Julia Child.

I could make a meal of bread alone, fresh from the oven and spread with sweet butter, but who can resist the classic combination of bread and soup. Apart from being a delicious duo, it feels so basic and nourishing.

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Sponge time: at least 4 hours; up to overnight
Preheat the oven to: 450°F.
Baking time: 1 hour 20 minutes
INGREDIENTS MEASURE WEIGHT
volume ounces/pounds grams/kilograms
fresh yeast* or dry yeast (not rapid-rise) 1 packed tablespoon teaspoons 0.75 ounce 0.25 ounce 17 grams 6.75 grams
sugar, divided 1 tablespoon 0.50 ounce 12.5 grams
water, divided 3 liquid cups
bread flour, divided 7 cups (dip and sweep method) + about ½ cup for kneading 2 pounds, 6.5 ounces 1 kilogram, 99 grams
whole wheat flour ½ cup (dip and sweep method) 2.5 ounces 75 grams
salt 4 teaspoons 1 ounce 26 grams
cornmeal about 2 teaspoons

*Fresh yeast causes dough to rise faster.

Method

First thing in the morning or the night before

Proof the yeast: Crumble the fresh yeast into a small bowl and add ½ teaspoon of the sugar and ¼ cup of the water, warmed to a tepid 100°F; if using dry yeast, increase the temperature slightly to 110°F. Stir until the yeast is dissolved. Set aside in a draft-free spot for 10 to 20 minutes. The mixture should be full of bubbles; if not, the yeast is too old to be useful. Discard it and start again with fresh yeast.

Make the sponge: In a large bowl, place the yeast mixture, 3 cups of the bread flour, the remaining teaspoons of sugar and the remaining cups of water. Whisk until very smooth, about 100 strokes. Cover with plastic wrap (preferably Saran brand) and allow to stand for 4 to 5 hours at room temperature or refrigerate overnight.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 4 cups of bread flour, the whole wheat flour and salt. Stir into the sponge and mix just until smooth. Mix in enough flour so that the dough is not sticky, then scrape the dough onto a lightly floured counter. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes. It should be very elastic, smooth and cool to the touch and jump back when pressed with a fingertip. If the dough is too difficult to knead in one batch, divide it in half and knead one portion at a time until smooth, keeping the remaining dough covered. Then knead the two portions together until combined. (You will have about 4 pounds of dough.)

Form the dough into a ball and place it in a large oiled bowl. Turn to coat, tightly cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk (it can take as long as 2 hours if the room is cold). Punch down the dough and knead it lightly. Form the dough into a ball and allow to rise a second time in the oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a towel.* (The second rising takes about 30 to 45 minutes.)

*If time allows, give the bread three risings before the final shaping.

Sprinkle the La Cloche bottom or a rimless baking sheet with about 2 teaspoons of cornmeal (or enough to cover lightly).

Roll the dough into a 7-inch ball and place it on the La Cloche bottom or the baking sheet. Cover with a large inverted bowl or plastic wrap sprayed with nonstick vegetable shortening. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes.

At least 30 minutes before baking, soak the top of La Cloche if using it. Preheat the oven to 450°F., and preheat a baking stone or cookie sheet.

Slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife or razor blade. (I like to make two long slashes about 6 inches apart in one direction and a second two long perpendicular slashes through them.) Place the soaked La Cloche top on top of the base if using and place on the preheated baking stone or sheet, or slide the dough directly onto the stone.

Bake for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 400°F. and continue baking for 65 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when rapped. (The baked bread will stay warm for 2 hours.)

NOTE: Do not use parchment on the bottom of the La Cloche unless it is greased or the bread will stick to it.

Electric Mixer Method

To make the sponge, place the ingredients in the mixer bowl of a 5-quart or larger heavy-duty mixer and, with the whisk attachment, beat for about 1 minute or until very smooth. Remove the whisk attachment, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 4 to 5 hours or refrigerate overnight.

Using the dough hook paddle attachment, gradually add the remaining 4 cups of bread flour mixed with the whole wheat flour and salt. Mix just until smooth. Add additional flour, if necessary, and mix to form a soft rough dough. Change to the dough hook, scraping off any dough that clings to the paddle, and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. After the first 3 minutes, if the dough still appears sticky and has not begun to clean the sides of the bowl, add some additional flour a few tablespoons at a time. If the dough seems dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Form the dough into a ball and proceed as above.

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