French-Style Country Bread

After last weekend's success with the honey wheat bread, as well as the Easter sweet bread, I decided to find a recipe for some really delicious French bread. I found this recipe on the King Arthur Flour website, and it was everything I was looking for. Crusty on the outside, light and airy on the inside. I was a little worried about how it would turn out, but it came out amazing. I will definitely be making this one again...and soon!

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Draney Photography

French-Style Country Bread
King Arthur Flour

This bread uses the sponge, or poolish, method: sort of a poor man's or woman's sourdough starter -- no feedings, little pre-planning, lots of flexibility and superb bread. I usually make this dough, sponge starter and all, in the bread machine, but you can do it by hand, processor, or stand mixer. After barbecue season, bake this bread in the conventional oven but atomize it with water to get that crisp crust. If you've always wanted crusty, hole-ridden, French-style bread, this is the ticket.

Sponge Starter (Begin 2 to 16 hours ahead)
1 cup (8 ounces) cool to lukewarm water, preferably spring water (90 to 100°F)
1/2 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
1 1/4 cups (6 3/8 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) King Arthur White Whole Wheat or Traditional Whole Wheat Flour


All of the sponge starter (above)
1 cup (8 ounces) lukewarm water, preferably spring water (l00 to 115°F)
3/4 teaspoon active dry or 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3 3/4 to 4 cups (1 pound to 1 pound 1 ounce) King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

To Make The Sponge: Stir all of the sponge ingredients together to make a thick, pudding-like mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and leave on a counter overnight or for at least 2 to 4 hours. If you're making this in a bread machine, place the sponge ingredients inside, and turn the machine on for just a few seconds to mix the ingredients together. Turn the machine off and close the cover. Let the sponge rest for 4 hours or overnight (anywhere between 2 and 16 hours is fine, the longer the better).

To Make The Dough: Stir down the sponge with a spoon and add the water, yeast, sugar, most of the flour (hold back about 1/2 cup to use if required), and salt. Knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary, to make a soft dough, 10 to 12 minutes.

Note: You may also do this in your bread machine, using the Dough or Manual setting. After the dough has finished kneading, place it in a lightly greased bowl, and continue as directed below.

Big Tip: Mix ingredients together using up to 80% of the flour called for: it will be a loose, messy mass. Let the dough rest for 12 minutes, and you'll see it change in texture, to be come much smoother. Continue, kneading and adding additional flour as required. Overall, the dough handles better once its had time for the flour to absorb the water while resting and relaxing. By using this method, you'll tend to add less flour, and have much bigger holes in your finished bread.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container, cover with lightly greased plastic wrap and a damp towel, and let it rise until almost doubled (depending on the weather, this could be l to 2 hours). If you're going out, or if you prefer, let the dough rise slowly in the fridge. If your dough has been refrigerated, allow it to come to room temperature; it'll warm up and rise at the same time. After its first rise, deflate the dough gently, b
ut don't knock out all the air; this will create those "holes" so important to French bread. Form the dough into a round ball. Place two cookie sheets atop one another, and place a semolina- or cornmeal-dusted piece of parchment paper on top. Gently place the ball of dough on the cookie sheets, seam-side down. Cover it lightly with a tea towel, and let it rise the second time until it's puffy and about 40% to 50% larger, anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes (depending on the weather, luck, and magic). Slash or cross-hatch the bread with a sharp knife or lame. Dust it with a little flour.

Preheat the oven to 475°F. Slash the bread, spritz water into the oven with a clean plant mister, and place the bread in the oven. Reduce the heat to 425°F and spritz with water every few minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking. Bake the bread for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until it tests done.

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Draney Photography

Yield: 1 large round bread or two medium breads, 10 to 12 servings.

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