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French Bread

1/2 plus 2 cups warm (about 100-110F) water
Approximately 7 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 packages active dry yeast

Empty yeast into 1/2 c. warm water and stir to dissolve the yeast.
The water must be warm but not too warm, as this will kill the
yeast. Let the mixture stand briefly. Some bubbles should be
noted, indicating that the yeast is good.

Add to the yeast mixture 2 additional cups of water and 1 tablespoon
salt and 2 cups of flour. Stir into a relatively smooth batter.

Add to the mixture 4 additional cups of flour and stir until it
becomes very difficult to stir the mixture. Turn out the dough
onto a clean, floured surface.

Knead the dough until it is free of lumps, rather elastic, and
almost satiny in appearance. During this process, it will be
necessary to add more flour, perhaps 1 or 1.5 cups or a bit more,
depending on how damp the flour is. Enough flour has been added
when the dough has only a hint or almost no stickiness. Too much
flour will make the bread rather tough. Form the dough into a ball
and place in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Turn the dough over to
oil all surfaces. Place a damp towel over the bowl.

Allow the dough to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour
and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes. After rising, punch down
the dough and return to bowl and recover.

Allow dough to rise until again doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down
dough and divide into two equal pieces. Form each piece into a
long, thin loaf (this recipe makes two quite large loaves, or you
can divide the dough into more pieces and make small baguettes,
suitable for sandwiches). I find that it is easiest to form the
loaves by taking a piece of dough in both hands and stretching it
out by pulling and slapping the dough against the work surface.
The dough will be quite elastic - you need to be assertive with it
when forming loaves. Place the loaves upside down on a baking
sheet or a stone.

Place a damp towel over the loaves and let them rise for perhaps
20 minutes, until almost doubled. While the loaves are rising,
preheat the oven to 375F. I find that it is handy to use an oven
thermometer, as ovens vary substantially in temperature.

After rising, place the loaves into the oven. The loaves need to
bake for about 40 minutes. During the first 20 minutes, spraying
the loaves with water (from a plant mister, for instance) every
few minutes will improve the quality of the crust.

Remove loaves from oven. Turn the loaves over and rap the bottoms
gently. They should sound rather hollow. If not, they are probably
underdone and should be baked a bit longer. Enjoy this bread soon
after baking (the same day, preferably) as it goes stale rather
quickly. Note that, once it is stale, it still makes great garlic
bread.

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