Lauren Groveman a recipe for delicious living

Pane di Casa...That's Some Loaf!

(April 5, 2007)
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Bella asked Lauren:

Hi Lauren, I was wondering if you could help me with a bread question. I've recently attempted to make a rustic crusty type French/Italian bread at home and each time my crust is beautiful but the crumb/interior is gummy and very heavy. Is there something you can suggest so that I may get a nice light airy loaf of bread instead of a crusty brick? Thank you

Lauren says...

Thanks for your question. Without knowing the recipe you're using, I can't really tell you what the definitive problem is. I will outline the common issues that could cause your baked bread to come out (as you say) heavy, gummy, with a thick-as-a-brick texture.

Since your bread is not being described as dry, I will assume that you're not over-baking it, (so that's one problem we can forget about, for now).

The dense quality you describe can result from several things:

1) Not allowing the dough to rise sufficiently. Giving the dough this time will give the dough a very billowy texture, which is what helps to create a more overall airy loaf, once baked. I rise my dough twice before even shaping it into loaves (first for 2 hours and then, after punching down the dough, I rise the dough again, for 1 hour). With some breads (like my Pane di Casa) I begin with as easy-to-assemble fermented starter, which makes the bread even more wonderful (flavorful and dimensional).

2) Using only coarse, whole grain flour. This will reduce the overall bouncy texture in bread. So, combining it with a more refined white flour (using a high protein bread flour in a ration of 2 to 1 (twice as much white flour as whole grain flour) will help to create a lighter dough. For bread made with only whole grain flour, you can add 1 tablespoon pure wheat gluten, per cup of whole grain flour, to the dough which will help to lighten the texture. Pure wheat gluten is available at health-food stores and also at on-line baking sites like

3) Not letting the shaped loaf rise long enough before baking. Again, this last rise should be long enough to almost let the dough double. Don't go too far, however, or the yeast could exhaust itself and the loaf could deflate before having the final push upwards in the hot oven. This, too, could cause a condensed "deflated" texture.

4) Not slashing the risen shaped loaf before baking.
Artisan breads are most often baked, at least initially, at very high temperatures, to help set the crust. If you're not slashing your loaves correctly, before they enter the oven, the loaves will become brown on the outside, but the inner steam that instinctively moves upward will have no easy exit. As the steam tries to find a way out, it becomes forced to move back down into the dough, becoming trapped until, eventually, it forces it's way out, bursting open one of the sides of the loaf. The initial slashes (just before baking) give a deliberate (and decorative) way for the steam to leave the dough as it bakes, leaving the interior crumb dryer and more cooked. In other words, if you don't do this, the loaves will most likely burn on the outside by the time the interior is cooked sufficiently.

5) Not kneading the dough sufficiently. Kneading develops an elastic (glutinous) network that traps the yeast evenly throughout the dough, as it rises. As the yeast consumes and digests the natural sugars in the dough, it multiplies and expels carbon dioxide (a process called fermentation, which adds to the flavor and texture of the baked bread). The kneading technique, when done properly, will thoroughly disperse the yeast so that the flavor and texture enhancing properties are evenly distributed.

6) Not using enough flour or using too much flour: Each has its problems. Not adding enough flour will create baked bread with insufficient structure (slack and dense) and dough with too much flour will be heavy and dry (the "brick" you speak of). If hand-kneading the dough, briskly stir in flour (into your liquid ingredients) until the mass hugs the spoon, leaves the sides of the bowl and is no longer easy to stir. Then, after turning the dough out, onto a lightly floured surface (and with floured hands), continue to knead, adding small amounts of flour only when needed to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and work surface. If using a dough hook on an electric mixer, start with the paddle and, once the moist mass of dough seems glutinous, switch to the dough hook. Then, occasionally sprinkle small amounts of flour onto the bottom of the bowl, while working running the machine. Always finish a yeast dough by hand, though, as this is the only real way to determine if sufficient elasticity has been developed.

Here, I will give you my recipe for my Pane di Casa (it's in my latest cookbook " The I Love to Cook Book". Enjoy and let me know how you do. I'm here for you.

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Pane di Casa...That's Some Loaf!

Yield: 1 large loaf

Pane di Casa

This magnificent sourdough bread was born, several years ago, after an inspiring trip to Europe. Instead of shopping, I spent my days traipsing through many different kitchens throughout the regions of Italy and France. A common thread that seemed so meaningful to the French and Italian family table was a big round of crusty bread. So, when I came home (literally, before I even took off my jacket), I headed straight for the kitchen and concocted a yeasty starter, which I let ferment for several days, before using it in my bread dough. Since yeast flourishes in a mixture that includes liquid barley malt, that's the preferred sweetener to use in the starter. It's available in most health food stores. If you're really anxious to get started, however, just use a mild-flavored honey. Any time I've suggested a tool, a piece of equipment, or a culinary term that's unfamiliar to you, you can go to Kitchen Management to get more information.

    Special Equipment:

  • Wooden surface for kneading (or use a nonstick kneading mat)
  • Pastry scraper
  • Sheet of quarry tiles or a large pizza stone
  • Baker's basket (coiled or cloth-lined)
  • Baker's peel (use a flat baking sheet as a substitute)
    For the starter:

  • 2 cups filtered or bottled spring water, warmed (not hot)
  • 1 generous teaspoon liquid barley malt or mild-flavored honey
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    For completing the dough:

  • About 7 tablespoons melted Clarified Butter, or Garlic Confit Oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste (optional)
  • ½ cup nonfat dry milk
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar for the dough, plus a pinch for the yeast
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water for the yeast, plus 1½ cups warm water for the dough
  • 1 cup sifted whole wheat flour (optional)
  • Up to 6½ cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour, including flour for dusting and shaping
  • Medium-ground cornmeal, for baking
  • Kosher or sea salt, for sprinkling (optional)

1) To make the starter: Combine the water, barley malt or honey, and yeast in a 4-quart mixing bowl. When the yeast is dissolved and appears bubbly, stir in 2 cups of the flour. When combined, briskly stir in another cup of flour and, when smooth, add the remaining 1 cup of flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring briskly after each addition. Alternatively, this can be done in an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment. Cover the bowl very securely and place it in a warm, draft-free spot for four days. Uncover the bowl and stir the fermented starter and, if not planning to make bread right away, cover the bowl well and store it in the refrigerator. Let the mixture come to room temperature, before using. (See the following instructions learn more on how to keep your starter healthy.)

2) To assemble the dough and rise it twice: Once the starter is ready, pour the clarified butter or garlic confit oil into a small bowl, and use some of it to lightly grease the interior of a 6-quart mixing bowl. If desired, sprinkle the greased interior with black pepper and set that bowl aside. Place the dry milk in another mixing bowl with the salt and 2 teaspoons sugar. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in ½ cup warm water with a pinch of sugar and allow it to become visibly bubbly, about 3 minutes. Add the dissolved yeast to the mixing bowl along with 1½ cups of warm water and 4 tablespoons of the butter or oil. Stir in 1 cup fermented starter along with the whole wheat flour, if using, and 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (or if not using whole wheat flour, add 3 cups white flour). When mixed, stir in more white flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and is no longer easy to stir.

Use a sturdy rubber spatula to scrape the mass out on to a floured surface and knead it, until you've created a dough that's smooth and elastic, adding only as much additional flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Place the dough into the greased bowl and brush the top of the dough, lightly, with more fat. Cover the bowl with greased plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise, in a warm, draft-free spot, for 2 hours. Uncover the dough and deflate it, using several swift swats with the back of your hand. Turn the dough over in the bowl and knead it gently, just to redistribute the yeast. Re-cover the bowl and let the dough rise until very light and billowy, about 2 hours.

3) To shape the dough into a round or oblong loaf: First rub a generous amount of flour on the interior of a large round or oblong coiled wooden or cloth-lined bread basket. If you don't have this, place a well-floured pastry cloth (or a square of linen) in a low, wide, 2½-quart bowl. Uncover the fully risen dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. To make a taut round loaf, (called a "boule" in French), pull the sides of the dough up, and pinch these gathered ends on top. Repeat this over and over again, until the dough is round, taut, and smooth on all sides, except the top, which will have a slightly pinched appearance. To shape an oblong loaf, after turning the dough out, pat it gently to create a rectangular shape. Fold the long sides in toward each other, pinching in the center to create one central seam. Keep pulling up the sides until the oblong shape is apparent and even. Pinch the ends, elongating them slightly, and attach these ends neatly to the seam on both sides.

Place the shaped dough into the prepared basket or bowl, smooth-side down (pinched or seam side up) and cover the loaf with a clean kitchen towel. Let it rise until very billowy, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

4) To get ready to bake: Immediately after shaping, position the rack in the lower third of the oven (or on the second to lowest shelf). If using a sheet of quarry tiles or a large pizza stone, place it on the rack and preheat the oven to 450°F for at least 30 minutes. Sprinkle a baker's peel or a flat cookie sheet with cornmeal. If not using tiles or a stone, brush or spray a large shallow baking sheet with vegetable oil and sprinkle the interior with cornmeal. Regardless, just before the end of the rise, place 4 ice cubes into a 1-cup measuring cup and add enough cold water to reach the ¼-cup mark. Place this next to the oven. Alternatively, if worried about damaging your oven, place the stone on the second lowest rack and, on the rack underneath, place a cast iron skillet into the oven and preheat the skillet along with the stone. Just before baking, pour ¾ cup hot water into a measuring cup and place this by the oven.

5) To bake: Uncover the risen loaf and carefully turn it out, smooth-side up, onto the prepared peel or oiled baking sheet. Use your hands to gently plump the shape, if necessary, being careful not to deflate it. If making a round, use a very sharp knife to make five 1/3-inch-deep slashes in the top surface, creating a star pattern. Sprinkle the top with coarse salt, if desired. If baking with tiles, insert the peel all the way to the back of the oven and, with several swift jerks, pull out the peel, leaving the dough on the hot tiles. Immediately toss the ice water onto the oven floor (underneath the tiles) and shut the door. If not using a stone, place the baking sheet directly onto the hot oven rack and toss the ice water underneath it. (Or pour the hot water into the preheated skillet below the stone.)

Bake the loaf for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375°F and bake for 10 minutes. Turn off the oven and let the loaf sit there, with the door shut, until it's crisp and uniformly golden, and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 10 minutes. Transfer the bread to a wire rack to cool thoroughly, before slicing.

    Lauren Logo Timing is Everything

  • Allow the starter to ferment for four days, at room temperature, before using for the first time.
  • The dough can be assembled through the first full rise and, after punching down, placed in the refrigerator for up to two days. Let the dough sit out of refrigeration until it comes to room temperature (which can take 4 hours), before shaping, rising, and baking as directed.

To Care for Your Sourdough Starter

To keep a fermented starter healthy, you'll need to nourish it. The best way to do this is to use it often, since each time you remove some, you'll feed it with more flour and water. Once refrigerated, if not used in seven days, bring it to room temperature and stir the mixture well. Remove 1 generous cup and discard it. Briskly stir in 1 cup each, unbleached all purpose flour and room temperature filtered or bottled spring water. When smooth, wipe down the sides of the container and cover it well with plastic wrap and then a tight-fitting lid. (I use a 4-quart plastic bucket with a lid.) Either leave the starter out or refrigerate it, keeping in mind that you'll need to feed a room temperature starter every day and a refrigerated one every 7 days. Always bring it to room temperature, before using it.


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Lauren Groveman recipes have been featured in many national magazines and local newspapers. Her books "The I love to Cook Book: Rediscovering the Joy of Cooking for Family and Friends" and "Lauren Groveman's Kitchen, Nurturing Food for Family and Friends" are available through

For in depth information on Lauren Groveman as a writer, teacher, TV & radio host, as well as her recipes and cooking tips visit her website at

Lauren is a Larchmont resident. She is happily married and blessed with three wonderful children.