In the old days in Europe, women would mix up a little flour, yeast, and water before going to bed at night and then in the morning form the dough into a loaf. It was called hearth bread because the yeast mixture stayed warm by the hearth all night. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most important rules in making bread is having a warm kitchen. I like to use a baking stone (see p. 145) for this bread because it seems more “Old World.” As you make this bread, you might picture yourself out in the French countryside where Monet worked his magic or on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Wherever your imagination takes you, you will have great joy in baking hearth bread for your family.
- 5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour divided
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast divided
- 2 cups warm 105–115 degrees water divided
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil (or half olive oil and half canola)
- Cornmeal for sprinkling on the baking stone if using
OPTIONAL FOCACCIA INGREDIENTS:
- Fresh herbs minced
- Sun-dried tomatoes chopped
- Garlic cloves minced
Before you go to bed at night, mix 1 cup of the flour, 1 teaspoon of the yeast, and 1 cup of the water in a large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap (oiled on one side) and then again with a towel. Place a pan of hot water on the bottom of an unheated oven (to warm the oven) and place the bowl of dough on a center rack in the oven.
In the morning add to this mixture 1 cup of the flour, the remaining 1 teaspoon of yeast and 1 cup of water, the salt, and the oil. Mix well. Add 3 more cups of the flour and stir with wooden spoon. (Alternatively, you may mix the dough with a heavy-duty mixer.)
Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Gradually add more flour as you knead the dough to form a soft, smooth dough that does not stick to the floured surface, about 5 minutes. (If using a mixer, knead with a dough hook for 5 minutes.) Return the dough to the bowl (or let it rise in the mixer bowl) and re-cover it with plastic wrap (oiled on one side) and a towel. Set in a warm place to rise, about 1 hour.
Punch the dough down and knead briefly to remove the air bubbles. Divide the dough in half. From each half, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and set aside for the focaccia. If you’ll be using a baking stone, start preheating the oven to 425 degrees, with the stone on a lower rack; it takes about 30 minutes for the stone to get hot.
With the two dough halves, form two small loaves or rounds and place them side by side on a greased baking sheet. Or, if you’re using a baking stone, place the loaves on a baker’s peel covered with flour. Cover the loaves with oiled plastic wrap and then again with a towel, and allow to rise while you make the
TO MAKE THE FOCACCIA: Knead the two golf-ball pieces of dough together a few times into one mass. If desired, knead in up to 1/4 cup fresh minced herbs, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or 1 to 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced. Pick up the dough and rotate and stretch it in your hands like a pizza crust, to about the size of an 8 x 8-inch baking pan. Grease the pan and place the dough in it, stretching it a little more with your fingers as necessary. (It need not completely fill the pan.) Or place the square on another baker’s peel. Use the handle end of a wooden spoon to dimple the dough very close together. Cover with plastic wrap (oiled on one side) and a dish towel and allow to rise 10 to 15 minutes.
If using a baking stone, sprinkle the stone with cornmeal just before sliding the loaves from the baker’s peel onto the stone. (Feel free to give the loaves a little “boost” as needed.) Sprinkle the focaccia with coarse salt if desired and place it on a higher rack in the oven. Spray the sides of the oven with water and close the oven door. Spray a couple of times again as the bread is baking and spray directly onto the loaves as well. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the loaves are light brown on the top and bottom and the focaccia is golden. Turn loaves onto a cooling rack. Serve breads hot or allow to cool.
Note: Any bread can be baked on a baking stone instead of in a standard pan, as described above. Don't let a lack of bread pans keep you from baking bread! TIP: Because the first rising of the Hearth Bread dough is overnight in the oven, it’s a good idea to put a sign on the oven door so no one accidentally turns the oven on.