Italian Peasant Bread
2 Packages Fast-Rising Dry Yeast
2 1/2 Cups Tepid Water
6 1/2 Cups GOOD QUALITY Unbleached White Bread Flour .... DO NOT USE ALL-PURPOSE
1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
Dissolve the yeast in water. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir to dissolve.
Make a batter of the water and yeast, together with 4 cups of the flour. Beat 10 minutes with the paddle of an electric mixer. It will pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl.
Add the salted water. Add the remaining flour and knead for 5 minutes in a good machine, using a dough hook, or 15 minutes by hand. You may need to add more water to get a moist elastic dough.
Place the dough on a plastic counter, or on a piece of plastic wrap, and cover with a large metal bowl. Let rise for 1 to 2 hours or until doubled in bulk. Punch down and let rise for 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down again, and mold into 2 or 3 loaves. Don´t worry too much about the shape. It does not matter. Place the loaves on a large floured cotton flour sack towel, or simply buy cotton muslin from the fabric shop. I prefer the towels. Sprinkle the loaves with additional flour and cover them with additional towel or fabric.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. IMPORTANT: Place a pan of hot water on the bottom shelf. This will assure you of a great crust. When the loaves have risen to double their original bulk, place them UPSIDE DOWN in the upper one third of the oven. You can use either baking sheets, pizza stones, or bread bricks, available in any gourmet shop.
Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned and the loaves sound hollow when you thump their bottoms with your finger. Cool on a rack.