4 ½ teaspoons of Active Dry Yeast (2 packages)
2 ½ cups water at 110°
2 pounds 3 ounces of unbleached white bread flour (about 6 ½ cups)
1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 tablespoon of warm water
Cornmeal for the pizza stone, if using. You won’t need this for the sheet pan. I just rub a little oil on the pan first.
Stir the yeast in the water. Let stand 5-10 minutes.
Weigh out your flour or measure if you don’t have a scale. It is important to weigh it if you have one because flour can absorb the moisture in the air which can make a difference in your final product.
Using a KitchenAid mixer will make this process really easy, but if you don’t have one you will get a good workout for your arms. Make a batter of the water and yeast, using 4 cups of the weighed out flour. Beat with the dough hook attachment, if using the KitchenAid for about 10 minutes. If mixing by hand, make sure the batter pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl. It should be sticky/tacky.
Add the salted water (make sure to use the salt, this give the characteristic crust you see on old world breads). Add the remaining flour and knead for 5 minutes in the KitchenAid using the dough hook attachment. If you knead by hand, allow about 15 minutes.
Place the dough on a wood cutting board and cover with a large stainless steel bowl or large soup pot. Let rise for 1 to 2 hours, if it is warm in your home, it will probably double in 1 hour. After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down, cover with the metal bowl and let it rise for another 1 ½ hours.
Punch down again, and mold into 2 or 3 round loaves or make 10 to 12 sandwich loaves. If making sandwich loaves, mold the dough into a long narrow loaf and cut in half, then each in half again, and so on until you have 12 even size pieces. Shape these into elongated rolls, and pinch the bottom together like a sea. Place the loaves on the well floured muslin or flour sack towel, allowing enough room between each one so they will have room to rise, about 2 inches between each. Let rise for one more hour.
Preheat your oven to 450° at least 30 minutes before the rolls or loaves are ready to be baked. If using a pizza stone make sure to put that in the oven when you set it. Add the pan of water to the lower rack about 15 minutes before you bake the bread so that it will be hot. This procedure gives the bread the crunchy crust you will love.
When the loaves have risen to double their original size, place them UPSIDE DOWN on the sheet pan or pizza stone (be careful with the stone, your oven will be scorching hot). You will see lots of flour on the dough when you turn it over, don’t dust this off, you want that.
If using the baking sheet, place the pan on the center rack, over the pan of water. Check to make sure the water level is adequate. You don’t want that pan to burn dry. Check it halfway through the baking time just to make sure.
Bake the rolls or bread loaves for 18 to 25 minutes. The rolls will only take about 18-20 minutes since they are smaller. You won’t be able to bake all the rolls at once; I was able to get 6 on the sheet pan I used. If you have made bread loaves you can bake two at a time and maybe three if your pan or pizza stone is large enough. Otherwise bake in two batches.
The bread is ready when you can hear a hollow sound when you tap the bottoms of the loaves or rolls. They should be a rich, golden brown.
Remove the bread to a wire rack and allow to cool. As the bread cools you will hear the crust cracking and popping. This is what gives it the super crunch you will love. This bread is chewing on the inside and rich in flavor; perfect for your Italian style sandwiches. Plan a picnic or summer evening outdoor dinner after you make this bread, and bring out the red checked tablecloth, an old wine bottle candle holder, and put on Luciano Pavarotti and sing O Sole Mio with the one you love!