My Nonna (grandmother) Vincenza made bread just about every week. She had to learn to make her own bread out of necessity during the war (WWII) when both bread and pasta were precious commodities. When she came the United States she adapted her recipe for all-purpose flour – the only flour that was available at the time. Now days most grocery stores carry a variety of different types of flours. This is a simple crusty Italian bread recipe. Comparatively speaking, it’s low on the bread-making difficulty scale. This recipe doesn’t require pre-fermentation with a biga or poolish or having to use an exact flour to water ratio. So when I want to make a simple loaf of Italian bread without fuss – I use my Nonna’s recipe.
For best results use a high-protein/high-gluten bread flour and refrigerate the dough overnight. I also recommend using a scale to measure both flour and water. The photo features a girasole (sunflower) shape but you can use the basic round shape or get as creative as you like.
NONNA VINCENZA’S RUSTIC COUNTRY BREAD
Pane di Casa della Nonna Vincenza
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Makes 2 large bread loaves.
3 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 pounds bread flour (about 8 3/4 cups) or all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons melted shortening, slightly cooled
1 egg white, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Roasted or raw sesame seeds
ACTIVATE THE YEAST: Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1/2 cup lukewarm water and in a small bowl. Let sit about 10 minutes until foamy.
MAKE THE BREAD DOUGH: Beat egg and honey in a small bowl and set aside. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Stir in yeast, egg mixture, shortening, and 2 to 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water; add only enough water to get a fairly stiff consistency. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board or countertop, knead for 8 to 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a large bowl lightly greased with olive or vegetable oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
SHAPE THE BREAD LOAVES: Preheat oven to 450 degrees F 40 minutes before baking. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide the dough in half and shape into balls. Place 1 loaf on each baking sheet. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm draft-free place until double in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Just before baking, brush bread with egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Optional: Using sharp kitchen shears, make six 1/2 cuts along the edge of the bread and cut a 1/4-inch deep hashtag mark on top.
BAKE THE BREAD: Place 2 cups of ice cubes in a foil-lined sheet pan on the bottom of the oven. The ice cubes will produce steam in the oven, which makes the bread rise higher and makes the crust crispy. Adjust oven racks and place one loaf on the lower rack and the other loaf on the higher rack. Bake 20 minutes and switch the position of the bread loaves by placing the loaf on the lower rack minutes on the top rack and vice versa. Cover the top of the loaves with foil if they start to brown too quickly. Continue baking 25 minutes longer, until deep golden brown. Immediately transfer loaves to a cooling rack until completely cool. This allows air to circulate around the bread and prevents the bottom from becoming soggy.