Sponge: In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and allow to soften. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Cover and let stand in a warm spot until doubled in volume (30 to 45 minutes).
Dough: Stir down the sponge, then add the sugar, shortening, 2 cups of the flour, and the salt. Mix until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead, adding more flour 14 cup at a time if the dough is sticky. Continue kneading vigorously until the dough feels smooth and elastic (10 to 12 minutes). The dough should push back when pressed down.
Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover and allow to rise until doubled in volume (35 to 45 minutes). Punch down, cut in half, shape into rounds, and cover. Allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Shaping: Form into 2 Italian-shaped loaves about 18 inches long. Place the loaves on a baking sheet that has been dusted with cornmeal. Cover with a cloth and allow to rise until doubled in size (45 to 60 minutes). Brush the tops with water and sprinkle with sesame seeds. When the bread has proofed, cut 3 diagonal slashes with a sharp knife or razor blade. Hold the knife at an angle to the bread and try to cut inside and underneath the crust. This will cause the bread to break open, or bloom, while baking and form a thick, crunchy crust.
Baking: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake with steam until the loves are browned and emit a hollow sound when thumped on the bottom with your fingertips (35 to 45 minutes). If baking on an oven stone or tiles, the bread can be removed from the baking pans for the last 10 minutes to firm up the crust.
Yield: Makes 2 loaves
A tip from George Greenstein Steam, in Baking "Place an empty roasting pan or other heavy pan in the floor of the oven 5 to 10 minutes before baking so it gets hot. Before slashing the breads prior to putting them in the oven, brush the tops with water or a cornstarch solution. I prefer the cornstarch method for breads that should have a shiny crust. When ready to bake, place the bread in the oven and carefully toss 6 to 8 ice cubes into the hot pan, or pour in 1 cup boiling water, and immediately close the oven door. ...do not open the door to peek for at least the first 10 minutes or the steam will escape. When you remove the bread from the oven, place it on a rack to cool, then brush the top with water or cornstarch solution once more. The results will astonish you."
Reprinted with permission from ©George Greenstein, Secrets of a Jewish Baker, published by Ten Speed Press click for book review
In his excellent and instructive book Mr. Greenstein has kindly offered variations for this recipe for both food processor or stand alone mixer variations. We apologize that space does not permit those reproductions.
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