Among my favorite cookbooks is the the Il Fornaio book of Italian breads, etc. I love them, but I wanted to incorporate the "no" (actually, MINIMAL) knead method to those recipes to see if I could streamline them.
One of the key things about the flavor of Italian breads is their version of the sponge, called "biga." So I did some tweaking and this is what I have for my basic pane rustico., which reminds me of what my nonna (my mother's mother, as previously discussed) used to bake.
BIGA 2 c (+/-11 oz/310gm) bread ("strong"?) flour 1 c warm water (110F/45C) ¼ teaspoon rapid-rise (instant will work) yeast
DOUGH 3–3½ c (16½ to 19¼ oz/470-545gm) bread flour 1 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast (instant will work) 1¼ cups warm water (110F/45C) 2 t fine sea salt salt (regular table salt if you absolutely must)
1. BIGA: Stir all of the ingredients together in a bowl to combine. Cover with plastic wrap (cling film?) and leave it at room temperature until it has risen and fallen, 12 to 24 hours. (Definitely no less than 6.)
2. DOUGH: Combine 3 c of flour and yeast in a mixer with a dough hook. Turn it on at low speed, add water and mix until the dough just comes together, +/-2 minutes. Turn off the mixer and cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature for 20 minutes.
3. Take off the plastic wrap, add the biga and salt, and knead the dough on medium-low speed until it is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes. Check at the 4 minute mark to see if more flour is needed (it almost certainly will) and then add the remaining ½ c flour, 2 T at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl but sticks to the bottom.
4. Put the dough on a floured counter and knead manually (!) to get a smooth, round ball. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover tightly with oiled plastic wrap. Put it to rise in a warm place until it gets double the size, figure 1 hour.
5. With a broad wooden spoon (a bowl scraper is ideal, but normal people cannot be expected to have such a thing) "turn" (think "stir") the dough in the bowl. Cover again, let rise for another 30 minutes, then turn again. Cover again and let rise until the dough has doubled in size, about 30 minutes more.
6. Cover a baking sheet with parchment ("baking" or "kitchen") paper. Put the dough on a lightly floured counter, shape it into a 10"/25cm square without tearing, and dimple it with your fingertips as if you were making focaccia. Carefully, fold the corners towards the middle of the dough, then roll up and pinch the dough into a sausage shape. Carefully move to the prepared baking sheet, seam side down, making sure you have tucked the dough into a smooth, taut loaf. Oil the loaf (spraying is ideal) and cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise somewhere warm for 60-90 min or so, until +/- doubled in size (the dough will barely spring back when you poke with your knuckle).
7. Put an oven rack to the lower-middle (4 of 5) position, with a pizza/baking stone on the rack, and heat the oven to 500F/260C. Let the baking stone heat for at least 30 minutes but not than 60. If you can't get a pizza stone, or unglazed tiles, etc. use enameled cast iron cookware, dividing the bread dough as needed to fit.
8. Slash the dough with a very sharp knife and mist lightly with plain water. (Carefully!) Slide the dough and parchment to the hot baking stone. Bake for 10 minutes.
9. Rotate the bread, drop the oven temperature to 400F/205C, and continue to bake until the center of the breads reads 210F/99C on a thermometer and the crust is properly browned, 30 to 35 minutes. Don’t forget to reduce the oven temperature after the first 10 minutes of baking. This is crucial.
10. Move the loaf to a wire rack without the parchment, and cool to room temperature (+/-2 hours, if you have the willpower) before serving.
Once you have the hang of this, you can add things such as olives, rosemary, sundried tomato, thyme, roast garlic, bits of pancetta, etc.