Rustic Italian Bread

I’m gearing up for the 26ish hour drive home tomorrow. Laundry, snack shopping, and a trip to Goodwill for a few new in-car distractions are in order. It’s been a lovely vacation visiting family in Kentucky and Indiana. Leaving from this trip is always hard for me. Knowing it will be close to a year until I see so much of my family again is rough. Let’s indulge in a little comfort food to ease the goodbye shall we?
A-maz-ing. That is the only way to describe this bread. It is dense and wonderfully chewy on the outside while being super soft and fluffy on the inside. When I am asked to bring bread to dinner at a friend’s, I always make this because it is stunning. 
What’s the secret you might be thinking? A sponge. A sponge is a magical little concoction of flour, yeast, and water that you make the day before and let sit for 24 hours before making the bread. It is then added in with the rest of the ingredients. The sponges add this amazing (and hard to describe) flavor and also does something magical to the gluten. The taste of the bread is amazing and the textures cannot be matched. 
This recipe will scare you a bit at first, but once you make it the first time you will make it again and again.
Here’s what the sponge looks like right after it is made. It will rise, get bubbly, and even collapse on itself during its magical 24 hours of counter-sitting.

Rustic Italian Bread
Recipe from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
Makes one very large loaf

For the sponge:
2 cups bread flour
1 cup warm water
1/4 tsp instant yeast

For the dough:
3-3 1/2 cups bread flour
1 tsp instant yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 tsp salt

To make the sponge:
Mix the flour, water, and yeast together in a medium bowl until it resembles dough. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 6 to 24 hours.

To make the dough:
Add 3 cups of the flour and yeast to the bowl of your stand mixer. With the dough hook attached, turn the mixer on to low and slowly add the water while the mixer is running. Let this mix for 2 minutes until the dough starts to come together. Lift the head of your stand mixer and place a piece of plastic wrap tightly over the bowl. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes.

After the 20 minute rest, remove the plastic wrap and add your sponge and salt. Mix on medium low speed for 8 minutes. After 4 minutes, if the dough is sticking to the side of the bowl add the last 1/2 cup of flour a little at a time until the dough stops sticking to the edges of the bowl but is still sticking to the bottom (you do want it to stick to the bottom). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a smooth round ball.

Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm spot until doubled, about an hour.

After the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap. Using a large spatula gently fold the dough into itself by pulling the edge of the dough into the middle. Do this a few times all around the edge of the bowl. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for 30 minutes..

Repeat the previous step after the 30 minutes are up and then let it rise for a second 30 minutes.

After the second 30 minutes of rising, it’s time to form the loaf. Remove the dough from the bowl and gently press it into a 10-inch square without tearing it. Fold each corner into the middle and then gently roll the dough into a tornado shape. Place the dough, seam down, on a rimless baking sheet (or one that is upside-down) that is lined with parchment paper. Gently tuck the dough into place on the parchment. You should end up with a long thin loaf that is 16 inches long. Lightly mist the dough with cooking oil and then loosely cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, prep the oven and your baking stone. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Let the baking stone heat for 30 minutes (but not longer than an hour).

When the dough has doubled, score the top with a razor blade, diagonally and 1/2 inch deep and spray lightly with water. CAREFULLY slide the loaf and the parchment onto the hot baking stone in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Bake for 30 to 35 more minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown. Let the loaf cool on a wire rack until it is room temperature before serving (about 2 hours cooling time).

Notes:
The bread flour makes for a chewier loaf, but in a pinch I’ve used all-purpose flour and the results were still worth the effort.
The longer the sponge sits the more developed the flavor will be.Try to let it set for 24 hours if you can.
Don’t skip on the initial 20 minute rest and the two light in-bowl “kneading” with the spatula – these help the gluten to develop and are what make the bread chewy on the outside while being fluffy in the middle.
I was brave enough to try such an in-depth recipe because The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book has tons of pictures of all the steps. It shows you what the sponge should look like, picture tutorial on shaping the loaf, etc. It’s a wonderful book that I recommend highly.

Disclosure: No one asked me to sell you on America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks; I just love the cookbook I mentioned above. It was a gift from my husband (smart man!).


30 comments on “Rustic Italian Bread

  1. Yum. I am going to have to invest in some bread flour. I’ve only ever bought whole wheat and white, but sometimes I think I am missing out. This looks amazing. Your photos are amazing.

  2. America’s Test Kitchen is the best. I made sure to get a scale (more accurate) to ensure that my latest foray into baking would be successful. To be honest, I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to recipes that are based upon weight v. volume. Weight all the way.

    1. I thought the same thing but America’s Test Kitchen bakes with it at super high temps all the time! It definitely gets charred but mine does’t smoke. Let me know how it goes!

  3. I preheated the stone at 500* but then lowered oven to 400 and cooked the loaf, which was so big I had to place it on the stone diagonally. It took 35 minutes till done! Came out amazing! I just didn’t want to chance the alarm going off. All worked out well though! I’m normally a white bread baker and hand kneader at that so this was my first Italian bread. I will try the standard recipe that uses olive oil and normal rises etc., but I’m sure yours will be the clear winner! Family devoured this bread like a pack of vultures! Grand babies loved it too. Great for teething molars!

    1. Update…your recipe won! I have been making it exclusively now. Hubby is waiting patiently (11:15 pm here) for the formed loaf to rise and then bake! Earlier, I made self rising pizza dough using the extra sponge from yesterday and adding olive oil. Came out fabulous! Thank you for this recipe!

      1. SOOO glad it worked!!! It’s a lot of work (well, time anyways) but it’s SO worth the effort. Congrats for trying and it turning out awesome.

  4. I love this book too, and my husband also bought our copy – except that he bought it for himself. Then I ended up taking over the cooking and I’m so glad that he bought it. He was the first one to watch their TV show too. Since that company has basically taught me how to cook, I shudder to think if I had started with any one else’s cookbooks that might not have been nearly as good!

  5. This recipe was so awesome!! I didn’t have bread flour. And my kids and husband devoured it!! Yum yum. I paired it with homemade chicken stew. I also added the water first and let the yeast bloom first.

  6. Hi! I just tried making this recipe and I had a bit of trouble with the part where the dough needs to be shaped into a square, them the corners get folded inward toward the center and finally roll into a tornado shape. Could you elaborate a bit on each of those steps? I feel there is some information that could be added. Also, pictures, pictures would be great!!

    1. Such great tips! I’ll have to make it again and take lots of pictures. The idea is that you are folding up the dough to make the loaf shape (instead of kneading or squishing it) so that it traps lots of air pockets so the bread is holey and wonderful. I’ll make some improvements to the post though, thank you!

  7. I made this tonight and it was amazing!!!!! I have been trying for long to make a loaf of bread like this. It was absolutely beautiful and perfect, chewy outside while light and airy inside. Thank you for sharing :)

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