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Everyday Bread

This is the sort of bread you crave when you need comfort. Not too airy, and certainly not dense, it has a moist crumb, pleasantly sweet taste of wheat, and a thin, crackling crust. The addition of a bit of sugar and milk yields a browner, sweeter crust; the olive oil results in a moister, cakier crumb. I prefer the bread baked from dough that has had a chance to mellow overnight in the refrigerator: its flavor is more complex, its air bubbles somewhat larger.

Here I baked the bread as a boule (or large sphere); but the same dough can be baked flat with olive oil and sea salt, for focaccia; or flattened into a slipper shape for a decidedly unrustic take on ciabatta; or rolled thin into baguette…. depending on the shape you choose, the bread will take different amounts of time to bake through, as a taller dough takes longer than a flatter one. But to have a bread with a properly chewy crust, you need to bake the loaf at least until it sounds hollow when thumped from the bottom.

Makes 2 large loaves (About 12 ounces each)

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  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the counter
  • 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus 1/8 teaspoon for sprinkling
  • 1/4 cup 2% or whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon for brushing
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons room temperature water, plus extra if needed
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the bowl
  • 2 tablespoons coarse cornmeal

Place the flour, yeast, sugar, and 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of the salt in a large bowl. Mix well with a wooden spoon.

Add 1/4 cup of the milk and all of the water, and stir well. Add the olive oil and stir again. If the dough is too dry to gather around the spoon, add a bit more water by the teaspoon until the dough gathers into a soft mass around the spoon. If the dough is sticky, add a bit of flour by the teaspoon until it forms a cohesive, soft mass.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead vigorously for 10 minutes, or until it is very smooth and elastic. Try to add as little flour as possible to the dough as you knead it; the more flour you add, the denser the bread will be. It is all right if the dough sticks to your hands a little; knead it faster and it will tend to stick less. The dough is kneaded sufficiently when it is smooth and even in texture all the way through, and when it springs back when poked with a finger; it will also stretch about 6 inches without tearing when pulled apart with two hands.

Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough in it. Turn it to coat with the oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature for 1 hour, or until starting to increase in volume. Refrigerate 12 to 24 hours (a 24 hours rise yields a tastier dough). Return to room temperature when you are ready to shape the dough and bake the bread.

One hour before you are ready to bake the bread, and after it has returned to room temperature, preheat the oven with a baking stone on the bottom rack to 425 degrees (preferably set on convection bake). Remove the two other racks so that you have room to slide the two loaves onto the hot baking stone later.

Turn the risen dough out onto a very lightly floured counter and cut it into 2 even pieces. Shape each into a round, taut ball. I do this by cupping the dough between my two hands and rotating it a little at a time while putting pressure on the bottom and squeezing my hands together on the very base of the dough. Place 1 piece of parchment paper on an upturned baking sheet (in other words, the baking sheets will have the rims facing down to facilitate sliding the loaves into the oven) and dust each piece of parchment paper with cornmeal. Place one shaped dough ball on each cornmeal-dusted parchment paper and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

Uncover, slash each loaf diagonally with a sharp knife three times to score the top (this allows the crust to expand without tearing and looks nice), and brush with the remaining tablespoon of milk. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

Quickly slide the loaves into the oven and onto the hot baking stone, one at a time, using the upturned baking sheets as paddles. Close the oven door very quickly.

Using a plant mister, spray the loaves three times with water during the first 10 minutes of baking. Be sure to close the oven door quickly each time or else the oven temperature will drop.

Bake a total of 30 minutes, or until the loaves are a deep, golden color flecked with brown, and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom. Cool on racks and serve at room temperature. The loaves can be frozen, well wrapped in plastic and placed in freezer-safe bags, for up to 2 weeks, then thawed and reheated in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10 minutes.

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