Cuban Bread

From Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Breads

i don't know why this is called Cuban bread. You'd have to ask Bernard Clayton. During a random Web search I turned up at least one site that claimed that you can't make real Cuban bread without lard, which this recipe doesn't use. So I'm not vouching for the regional correctness of this recipe. I will vouch for the fact that this is a ridiculously simple bread to make; I've even made it on worknights when I really wanted fresh bread and we didn't have any in the house. Although you will get a softer and lighter loaf if you knead by hand, I do use the KitchenAid dough hook for kneading on days when I just don't feel like dealing with the mess.

5-6 cups bread or all-purpose flour (I prefer Gold Medal Better for Bread)
2 packages dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups hot water (125F)
Sesame or poppy seeds (optional, and I've never used them)

Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal and grease a bowl with olive oil.

Place 4 cups of the flour in another large bowl and add the yeast, salt, and sugar. Stir them with a fork until they're well blended. Pour in the water and beat for 100 strokes, or 1 minute in a mixer with the dough hook on Stir speed. Gradually work in the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough loses stickiness and/or starts to form a ball around the dough hook. (You probably won't need all 6 cups; you will use more flour if you're using a stand mixer.)

Sprinkle work surface with flour and dump the dough onto it. Work in flour as you knead, and keep dusting the work surface. Knead for 8 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. If you're using a mixer, knead on speed 4 for about 3 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. I often do the last bit of kneading by hand even if I'm using the KitchenAid. Clayton is a big fan of abusing bread dough; he advises picking it up and really whamming it into the counter a time or two. It's great fun. Try it -- if your spouse comes up from downstairs to ask you what you're doing, you've got it right.

When you're done beating up on the dough put it in the oiled bowl, turn it over, cover it, and leave it to rise for 15 to 20 minutes or until it's doubled in bulk.

When it's risen, punch the dough down, turn it back onto the work surface, and divide it into two reasonably equal pieces. Shape each lump into a round loaf, place them on the baking sheet, and slash an X into the top of each loaf with a really sharp knife or a razor. (This poor dough doesn't get a break.) Brush each loaf with water and sprinkle with seeds if you're using them.

Place the baking sheet in the middle of a cold oven. Yes, really. Put a pan of water on the shelf below. Turn the oven to 400°F and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the loaves are deep golden brown. Rotate the pan at least once during baking time. If you have a mister, you can also mist the loaves with water once during baking time. Thump the bottoms of the loaves to test them -- if they sound hollow, they're done. I like cutting a piece from the loaf while it's still fairly warm and enjoying it with butter and a nice cup of coffee.

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