For about 30 years I've tried to bake bread that approximates the chewy, crusty, full-flavoured breads I gobble up in Europe. I have tried different recipes and techniques, and often have limited success with an acceptable baguette or loaf... but too often the bread I produce is in the shape of a boule or baguette, but still tastes like ordinary white bread.
Then, recently I have discovered a recipe that is not only dead simple and seemingly unfailable, but consistently produces a loaf that is everything I want... and others seem to agree. At a recent meeing of the Pelham Slow Food Convivium, Reinholt raved that it tasted like the breads of his childhood in Germany... high praise indeed! Others have said it reminds them of an Italian loaf, and others that it has the texture and taste of a French country bread (not to be confused with the delicate and fine-textured French baguette... this is coarser, though there is a taste similarity).
Anyway, it's so easy and foolproof you can try it for yourself and see if it meets your requirements. Note: this recipe does take time... about 24 hours, so you do have to plan ahead!
The recipe is adapted from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery as reprinted in the New York Times in November, 2006.
3 Cups all-purpose or bread flour
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast (I have found that regular yeast also works)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 5/8 Cups water
1. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and add the water, stirring until blended. The dough is sticky and messy... but it's supposed to be. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for about 15 to 20 hours.
2. The dough is ready when it is bubbly on the surface. Flour a work surface and pour out the dough onto it. Flour the top and fold it over on itself a few times, then cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes.
3. Flour the dough again so it doesn't stick to your fingers as you shape it into a ball. Put the dough seam-side down on a floured surface, cover with floured tea towel and let it rise for about two hours. By then it should have doubled in size.
4. Put a heavy, lidded pot or casserole dish in the oven and set the temperature to 450. (I use a cast iron le Creusset pot and find it perfect, but any heavy enamel, cast iron or ceramic pot should work.) When the dough is ready and the oven is up to temperature, plop the dough into the hot pot. It is still soft and... well, doughy... so you can shake the pot to even it out before covering it with the lid and putting it in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake another 15 minutes or so, until the surface is dark brown. Cool on a rack.