In his New Complete Book of Breads, Bernard Clayton doesn’t elaborate on this bread’s name; he does, however, call it “… a beginner’s dream.” And adds “Often I have used it in baking classes to demonstrate the ease with which good bread can be made.”
He might also have pointed out that this handsome bread is just the right measure of dense and chewy on the inside, with a soft but assertive crust on the outside, and that the rising time is only 15 minutes, which means the bread can be made from start to finish within an hour and a half, which is pretty great if — like me — you leave bread making to the last minute.
I first made it last September, realizing there was no bread in the house a bare ninety minutes before guests were to arrive for brunch. The name had also caught my eye and indeed it complemented well the baked eggs with cherry tomatoes, basil, and dash of balsamic vinegar I was serving that day.
Back then I hoped this sudden baking impulse would set the tone of a home-baked-bread–filled year, and perhaps even lead to realizing the sourdough fantasy I’ve been chasing.
Well, there hasn’t been much bread baking in the interim, let alone a sourdough adventure. Not a single loaf, in fact, until I baked this same Cuban bread for brunch again recently. It was well complemented, this time, by fried eggs with sautéed leeks and mushrooms atop grilled polenta (or that was the intention — the reality wasn’t quite so neat, but delicious nonetheless).
From Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads
5 to 6 cups white flour
2 packages yeast
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsps sugar
2 cups hot water (120°-130°F or 50°-55°C)
Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
Prepare a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Place 4 cups of flour in a large bowl, add the yeast, salt, and sugar, and stir until they are well blended.
Pour in the hot water (using a thermometer is best here because if the water is too hot the yeast won’t work its magic, but, in the absence of such a device, a very unscientific gauge for right temperature is to place the little finger into the water and slowly count to ten. The water should feel quite hot at the end but below burning).
Beat with 100 strong strokes, or for 3 minutes with the flat beater of a hand mixer.
Gradually work in the remaining flour, half a cup at a time, until the dough is no longer too sticky and can be shaped into a ball. Kneed the dough for 8 minutes by hand on a floured work surface or in a hand mixer with a dough hook until it feels smooth, elastic, and “alive.”
Shape into a ball in a greased bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 15 minutes.
Punch down the dough, separate it into two equal parts, and shape each into a smooth round. Place onto the parchmented baking sheet and cut an X on each loaf using a sharp knife. Brush with water and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds if desired.
Place the baking sheet with the loaves in the middle of a cold oven and place a large pan with hot water on a grate below, and heat oven to 400°F (200°C). **The bread will continue to rise in the oven as it is heating.**
Bake for about 50 minutes, until the bread is a deep golden brown. To check for doneness, knock on the bottom crusts; the loaves should sound hollow.
Let cool before slicing.