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This traditional Tuscan bread is as simple as bread can be: it's just yeast, water and flour mixed together, kneaded, shaped and baked. Salt is the missing element here. Because Tuscans often eat their bread with very spicy main dishes, or top it with salty, strong-flavored meats or cheeses, it is very bland tasting by itself, so as not to interfere with other tastes it's teamed with. Unless you're on a salt-free diet and are used to saltless food, this bread probably won't taste very appealing to you, if eaten by itself. But pair it with a salty prosciutto or a strong Parmesan cheese; or broil it, then spread with olive oil and crushed garlic; or eat it with a savory stew, and you'll see why Tuscans have baked and loved their saltless bread for many centuries.
1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
2/3 cup lukewarm (110°F) water
1 1/3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1 cup room-temperature water
3 3/4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
Make the sponge the night before you want to make bread. Stir the 1/4 teaspoon yeast into the 2/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the 1 1/3 cups flour and mix well. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.
The next day, stir the 1 1/4 teaspoons yeast into the 1/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the sponge and 1 cup of water. Mix well. Beat in the flour until dough is stiff enough to knead. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a well-greased bowl, turning to coat all sides, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down or handling it roughly. Gently form it into a large, round loaf by pulling all the edges underneath, gathering them and squeezing them together, leaving the top smooth. If you have a baking stone, place the loaf on a sheet of parchment paper; if you're using a pan, sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of the pan, and place loaf on it. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slash the top of the bread in a tic-tac-toe pattern. If you're using a baking stone, use a peel to transfer the loaf, parchment paper and all, to the stone in the oven. Otherwise, put the pan of bread into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, misting bread with water from a spray bottle three times during the 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 400°F and bake 25 to 30 minutes longer. Makes 1 large loaf of bread.