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Italian "Peasant" Bread

©David B. Fankhauser, Ph.D.,
Professor of Biology and Chemistry
University of Cincinnati Clermont College,
Batavia OH 45103
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The secret of crusty bread is high humidity.
Here we bake it in a covered dutch oven.

This page has been accessed Counter times since 9 January 2007. 
The finished bread is
crusty,chewy and delicious...
This recipe is a modification of a recipe by Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery, NYC, which appeared in the NYTimes in November 2006.

 Anyone who has lived in or traveled to Italy or southern France has experienced the wonderful bread which is the staple of the people of the countryside.  It is crusty and crunchy on the surface, and the interior has large holes, is translucent and yellowish, and is chewy.  It is a bread that makes you know you are eating real food!  During a sabbatical in a rural neighborhood near Naples, Italy (on Via Romano), this bread was not only the staple in the local bakery, but also baked by our friend Louisa in the outdoor wood-fired brick oven of the extended family with which we lived.  This is our personal experience with "Peasant Bread:" Pane Rustico.  For us, the name is deceptively modest.  In fact, this bread is worthy of wonder and respect, for making it is a practical art evolved from many centuries by people who have lived close to the earth, and developed extrordinary culinary skills.
The following recipe comes as close to replicating this marvelous bread as any we have found (after a 15 year search!).  Try it first with while flour (as below), then try the Whole Wheat/White Flour version.  The whole wheat version is nearly as light and crunchy, but also bears some of the vitamins, quality protein, and roughage removed from while flour products.

(P.S.  Yes. I know that pane is masculine in Italian...  My early pages assumed it was feminine, so they were named pane rustica...  However, I can't change the name of the web page at this point...)

1 gallon pot or mixing bowl with cover
measuring cups (one pint  and one quart)
measuring spoons (1/4  and 1 teaspoons)
dish towel, non-terry cloth
heavy 1-2 gallon covered cast iron pot (Dutch oven)
cooling rack
3 cups white enriched flour
1 1/2 cups fresh water, warmed to 90 F
1 tsp Kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon active yeast

cornflour or additional flour for dusting dough and cloth

01_ingredients_P1080003 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 1)  The night before, assemble the ingredients:

3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups water, 90 F.
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp yeast suspended in 3 Tbl of the above water

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11)  After 1 1/2 - 2 hours, the dough should have doubled in size, is soft, and will not rebound when you  press the surface with a finger.

02_whisk_in_flour_P1080004 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 2)

a)  Mix the suspended yeast with the rest of the water

b)  Whisk in the flour

12_preheat_oven_and_pot_P1090020 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 12)  Place a heavy pot (here, a Dutch oven) and its lid in the oven to pre heat.
03_finished_dough_P1080006 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 3)  The resulting dough is quite moist and sticky.  It should come away from the bowl, but still be very sticky.  You may add a little more flour, mixing with a wooden spoon, but do not lose the soft sticky/wettness.

11_set_temp_P1090030 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 13)  Turn on the oven, set to 450 F.
04_cover_for_night_P1080008 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 4)  Cover the raw dough, and let sit at room temperature (at least 68 F or 20 C) for 12-18 hours
14_lift_dough_P1090027 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 14)  When the oven and pot are completely heated to 450 F:
a)  Remove the HOT pot from the oven (CAREFUL).

b)  Slip your hand under the cloth and lift the dough.

c)  Flip the dough into the HOT pot.  If it is uneven, shake pot to even out.  Don't worry

05_bubbly_next_AM_P1090010 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 5)  The next morning:  the dough should look moist and bubbly.
15_lid_on_hot_pot_P1090028 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 15)  Cover the HOT pot with the HOT lid.
06_turn_out_dough_P1090013 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 6)  Turn the dough out on a well-floured surface

Again:  Note how soft and sticky.

16_into_the_oven_P1090029 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 16)  Place covered pot in the 450 oven.

b)  Set timer for 30 minutes

07_dust_with_flour_P1090014 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 7)  Sprinkle a little flour on the surface.
17_remove_lid_P1090032 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 17)  After 30 minutes, remove the lid, and bake for 10-15 more minutes, until golden brown.
08_fold_over_2x_P1090016 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 8) 
a)  With floured fingers, lightly fold the dough over on itself twice.  (Resist the need to kneed).

b) lightly dust its surface with flour.

Cover with a large pan and let rest for 15 minutes.

18_Pane_Rustica_P1090033 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 18)  Remove the bread from the oven, place on a cooling rack to cool, and exhale a little more moisture.

[We always cut off an end or two for fresh hot pane rustico with cold butter and a little more salt.  It will never be more delicious and crunchy.]
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9)  Generously dust a non-terry dishcloth with cornmeal, lie the dough, seam side down, on the cloth.  Lightly dust the top with cornmeal.

19_crusty_chewy_bread_P1090038 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 19)  This bread looks and tastes very similar to the Italian "peasant" bread I have been trying to replicate for a decade or more:
a)  Wonderfully crusty, because of the baking in the covered pot, which maintains high moisture in the baking environment.  (Yes--for me, it is counter intuitive:  higher moister makes for crustier bread.  I hear that some French bakers throw water into the oven to achieve high moisture)
b)  Large bubbles in the bread, and the texture is chewy and yellowish-translucent.  YUM
10_cover_with_cloth_P1090019 (-1x-1, -1 bytes) 10)  Fold the cloth over the dough to cover.