Crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside -- rustic breads are gaining favor among '90s cooks who yearn for a return to the natural goodness of unprocessed foods.
Rustic breads are full-flavored, with a dense, intriguing texture studded with grains, nuts and savory little items such as olives, sun-dried tomatoes and herbs.
Made with a fermented starter, or sponge, rustic breads signal a return to the old-fashioned way of making bread, before yeast came in little packets.
"For convenience and efficiency, yeast is great for bread, but flavor gets sacrificed," says Beth Hensperger, author of "Baking Bread, Old and New Traditions" (Crown, $18.95).
Yeast is temperamental, too, says Carol Ritchie, a baker who teaches bread classes. "Yeast has a limited life span," she says. "If you're not paying attention, the dough will over-rise, and the bread sinks during baking."
Starter, by contrast, rises slowly over a long time, producing a tasty bread with a chewy texture and toothsome crust that yeast can't provide.
"We're going back to the old days when bread was the foundation of a diet based on simple ingredients found in the region," says Ms. Hensperger. "Russia, for example, has rye bread because that's what grew there.
"Rustic breads also address people's health concerns," she says. "Real European rustic country bread has no additives. It's lean dough -- no fat and no sugar."
Ms. Hensperger's vision of rustic bread-making dates back to a trip to France.
"I was in a little village -- it was kind of crumbling -- when I came upon a baker in a storehouse," she says. "He had a wood-fueled oven into which he was placing these breads that were huge, as big around as if you stretched out your arms. He baked them until they were almost black. The bread looked like it was made of stone, like it was part of the earth."
Rustic means rough or unpolished. That explains the advantage of rustic loaves for a novice baker. They're supposed to look sloppy and rough-hewn. You don't have to worry about shaping them perfectly.
Try making loaves of different shapes -- long and thin, or squared, or roll the dough into rounds.
Leavening isn't a problem, either, because starter's relaxed pace makes the rising of the dough very flexible.
Like an old friend, starter tolerates your mistakes. If you forget to come back to the dough for a while, it will still rise and bake into a delicious loaf.
Italian country bread is a classic rustic bread that begins with a sponge that takes at least four hours to rise; the flavors develop even more overnight.
French-style whole-wheat bread breaks the rising process into three steps: starter, then sponge, then dough. Making this loaf takes at least three days.
Olive bread, which is closer to a traditional yeast bread, has been "rusticized" with the addition of large chunks of olives.
Whether made with starter or yeast, bread undergoes two risings. The first sparks the leavening process; the second rising takes place after the dough has been shaped. Wait until after the first rising to add nuts, raisins or herbs. Many recipes suggest tossing the additions in flour first.
Traditionally, rustic breads are baked in a wood oven or an open hearth at very high temperatures -- an environment you won't find in most homes. Use a baking stone -- a brick-like composition stone that retains heat and keeps the oven temperature hot and constant -- to replicate the conditions.
"With the prosperity of the Western world, we lost track of the old way of making breads," says Ms. Hensperger. "But there's a renewed interest in the art of baking. It's creative. Baking bread has an appealing innocence."
Making rustic breads the old-fashioned way can turn you into a flour fanatic.
Purists insist on organically grown whole-grain flours in the belief that they are grown with more care. However, organic flours are a rarity at most supermarkets, where the options usually are limited to three kinds of white and maybe a whole-wheat.
Susan Cheney, author of "Breadtime Stories" (Ten Speed Press, $16.95), recommends buying grains through the mail.
Whole-grain flours in particular have a limited life span; by buying from boutique grain companies, you increase the chances that the produce is fresh. Health food stores also stock organic flours.
Refrigerating flour in airtight containers will help preserve freshness.
Wheat flour is the No. 1 choice for bread. It contains the protein gluten, which helps bread rise. Ms. Cheney's favorite for bread is hard red spring wheat, because of its high gluten content. It can be ordered directly from grain merchants through the mail.
Whole-wheat flour is better for you -- but bread made with all whole-wheat doesn't rise as well as bread made with white flour. It's better to combine whole-grain flour with bread flour or all-purpose flour.
Other grains can be mixed into the dough to add flavor and texture.
Many small specialty grain suppliers offer catalogs. King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., is well-known nationally. For a catalog, call (800) 827-6836.
Here are some accessories for the serious bread-baker.
* Baking stone: At about $25, a baking stone is an affordable essential. The brick-colored stone's ability to absorb and retain intense heat duplicates the effect of a baker's oven, producing a thick, chewy crust in breads. You can also use quarry tiles, which you can buy at stone and/or ceramic vendors.
* Big bowls: Go for plastic, glass or ceramic -- not metal -- at least 4 quarts, big enough to accommodate a recipe that calls for 6 cups of flour. A tall, narrow bowl is better for dough on-the-rise than a flat bowl. Point of reference: Bakeries use trash buckets.
* Bread knife: It doesn't have to be fancy. Look for a serrated knife, at least 10 inches long, made specially for cutting bread.
* Mixer with a kneading attachment: These are pricey at up to $330, but if bread-baking's going to become a habit, then it's worth the investment, unless you want Popeye arms.
* Flour containers: These are helpful if you use a variety of flours. Tins are quaint; glass bottles and plastic containers are practical.
* Pastry scraper: Not essential, but it's helpful in lifting and
* Clean dish towels: Commercial bakers place loaves-to-rise on towels that have been sprinkled with water. When the bread has risen, they merely roll the shaped loaf off the towel and onto the baking pan or stone. A cheap little luxury, and a handy one.
Italian country bread
sponge (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 cups water, at room temperature
1 tablespoon salt
5 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (divided use)
Prepare sponge. Add yeast, water, salt and 1 cup of the flour to the sponge. Beat hard with a whisk for 3 minutes, or for 1 minute in a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium speed. Add the remaining flour 1 cup at a time, switching to a wooden spoon when necessary if making by hand. The dough will be smooth, yet not pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead vigorously until very elastic, yet still moist and tacky, about 5 minutes. This is important for a good, light texture. Slam the dough hard against the work surface to develop the gluten. Set aside, uncovered, for 5 to 10 minutes. Knead again; the sticky dough will smooth out without any extra flour.
Place in an ungreased deep container (plastic is good) and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature for 3 hours to overnight. The dough should triple in volume.
Remove the dough from the container. Place on the work surface, knead lightly into 1 large or 2 small rounds and flatten slightly. Dust lightly with flour and place in 1 or 2 flour-dusted cloth-lined baskets or on a greased or parchment-lined baking ,, sheet, smooth side down. Let rise, uncovered, at room temperature until soft and springy, 1 to 3 hours.
Twenty minutes before baking, heat the oven to 400 degrees with a baking stone in it, if desired.
Slash a crisscross design into the top of the free-form loaves no deeper than 1/4 inch, using a serrated knife. Slide the baking sheet into the hot oven (or carefully invert the loaves directly onto the baking stone from the baskets). Bake until very dark and crusty, about 55 to 60 minutes. Cool on a rack. This bread is best completely cooled and reheated. Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves.
Sponge: In a large bowl, sprinkle 1 teaspoon active dry yeast over 1/3 cup lukewarm water (90 degrees to 100 degrees) and 2/3 cup milk at room temperature. Stir to dissolve. Add 1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup and 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour. Beat with a whisk until smooth. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature at least 4 hours to overnight. This sponge can be refrigerated up to 1 week before using, if necessary. It will be bubbly.
Source: "Baking Bread."
... French-style whole-wheat bread
Makes 1 large round loaf.
1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
2 cups whole-wheat flour (divided use)
lukewarm water (90 degrees to 100 degrees)
5 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour (divided use)
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons water
Day 1: Make the starter by placing the yeast and 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour in a deep bowl or a plastic 4-quart bucket with a lid. Add 1/2 cup lukewarm water and whisk hard until a smooth batter is formed. Cover and let stand at room temperature for about 24 hours. The starter will bubble and begin to ferment.
Day 2: Make the sponge by adding 2 cups lukewarm water to the starter. Whisk to combine. Add 1 1/2 cups bleached flour and 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour alternately, 1 cup at a time, changing to a wooden spoon when necessary, until a smooth batter is formed. The sponge will be very wet. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover and let rise again at room temperature for about 24 hours.
Day 3: To make the bread dough, stir down the sponge with a wooden spoon. Add 1 cup of unbleached flour and the salt. Gradually add most of the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to make a firm and resilient dough.
Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface until smooth, JTC slightly tacky and springy, about 3 to 5 minutes, adding 1 tablespoon of flour at a time as necessary to prevent sticking. The dough will form little blisters under the surface when ready to rise. Place the dough in a greased deep container, cover tightly and let rise at room temperature until fully doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Turn the dough out onto the work surface. Shape into a tight round and place on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. (Or shape to fit a long or round cloth-lined basket lightly dusted with flour; let rise before turning out onto a prepared baking sheet or onto a hot baking stone.) Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap and let rise about 1 hour before baking.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack, if desired.
To form a crisp crust (optional): Fifteen minutes before baking, pour hot water into a broiler pan and place the pan on the bottom rack to steam the oven for the baking period.
Slash the loaf decoratively with a serrated knife. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water to make a glaze; brush over the entire surface of the loaf. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is browned, crisp, and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely before slicing.
' Source: "Baking Bread."
Red-pepper cream cheese
Makes about 2 cups of spread.
1 small red bell pepper, roasted, seeded and peeled (or use peppers in a jar)
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) natural cream cheese
juice of half a lemon
3 pecan halves
Puree the bell pepper in a blender or a food processor. Blend the puree, cream cheese and lemon juice until smooth and creamy, either by hand or with an electric mixer. Pack into a serving crock or bowl and smooth the top. Decorate with pecan halves. Refrigerate until serving time.
' Source: "Baking Bread."
1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water (105 degrees to 115 degrees)
1 1/2 cups warm milk (105 degrees to 115 degrees)
1/3 cup good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
5 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
1 cup Spanish-style, pimiento-stuffed green olives, drained, patted dry and halved
2 cups pitted black olives, drained, patted dry and halved
In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the warm water. Stir to dissolve; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, using a whisk, or in the work bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the milk, olive oil, yeast mixture, salt and 2 cups of the flour. Beat hard for 1 minute, or until creamy and smooth. Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time to form a soft, shaggy dough that clears the sides of the bowl, switching to a wooden spoon when necessary if mixing by hand.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 2 to 3 minutes, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time as necessary to prevent sticking. The dough should be smooth and springy, but not dry. Place in a greased deep container and turn once to coat the top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
Gently deflate the dough by turning it out onto the work surface. Divide into 2 equal portions and pat into flat ovals. Scatter a mixture of both kinds of olives evenly over the dough and press them in lightly. Roll the dough to encase the olives. Form into tight rounds or standard rectangular loaves. Place on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet or in 2 greased loaf pans. Cover lightly until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
Twenty minutes before baking, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake on the center rack for 40 to 45 minutes, until the bread is browned and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Remove from pans and cool completely on a rack before slicing. Makes 2 round or 9-by-5-inch loaves.
Source: "Baking Bread."
) Universal Press Syndicate