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Rustic Bread

Pane Rustico

Makes 1 Loaf

This dense country loaf, made with a natural starter and malt extract, available in health food stores or through mail-order sources, gives a boost to the rising dough. I bake the bread directly on a hot baking stone to ensure an evenly browned loaf, and I achieve a crackling crust by spraying water into the oven while the bread is baking.

Ingredients

1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 cup warm (110º to 115º) water

1 teaspoon malt extract

1 cup Starter, at room temperature

3 to 3 1/2 cups King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Cornmeal for sprinkling (if using a baking stone)

Directions

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup of the warm water. Let the yeast proof for about 10 minutes, or until foamy.

Add the remaining 3/4 cup water to the yeast along with the malt extract and stir well. Stir in the starter. Mix 3 cups flour with the salt, and gradually add to the yeast mixture, mixing with your hands until a ball of dough is formed. Add additional flour only if necessary - this is a loose dough; it should remain slightly wet and sticky. Resist the temptation to add too much flour.

On a floured surface, knead the dough: Pick the dough up with one hand, using a pastry scraper to scrape it all up, and slam it back down on the work surface. Do this six or seven times, or until the dough is smooth and slightly less sticky.

Lightly grease a large bowl with olive oil and add the dough, turning it to coat. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for at least 4 to 6 hours, or even overnight, to allow the bread to develop its sour tang.

Punch down the dough, and turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough with floured hands until it is smooth and just barely sticky. Form the dough into a round or oblong. If using a baking stone, place the bread on a wooden peel heavily dusted with cornmeal or lined with parchment paper. Or place it on a baking sheet. Cover the dough with a clean cloth and let rise for about 40 minutes.

If using a baking stone, set the stone on the lowest oven rack and preheat the oven to 500ºF at least 20 minutes before baking the bread. If baking the bread on a baking sheet, preheat the oven to 425ºF.

Slash the top of the loaf in several places with a sharp knife, razor blade, or scissors. If baking the bread on a stone, sprinkle the stone with cornmeal. Slide the bread from the peel onto the stone, starting at the back of the oven and working forward; if the bread is on parchment, slide it on the paper onto the baking stone. Or place the baking sheet in the lower third of the oven.

Using a plant mister, spray the oven several times with water, and close the oven door. Spray two or three more times during the first 10 minutes of baking. If using a stone, bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the bread is dark brown in color and sounds hollow when tapped with your hand. If using a baking sheet, bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned and sounds hollow. Remove the bread to a wire rack to cool.

This recipe is from CELEBRATIONS ITALIAN STYLE by Mary Ann Esposito, published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. in 1995.

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