Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
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How should bread give strength
until it is broken?
Country Bread
Bread basket
Sponge preparation: 10 minutes
Fermentation: Overnight
Total baking-day time: 5-¾ hours
Dough preparation: 30 minutes
First rising: 2 hours
Resting and forming: 40 minutes
Final rising: 1-½ hours
Baking: 45 minutes
Cooling: 20 minutes
Sponge
¾ cup warm water
½ tsp. dry yeast
1 cup whole wheat or all-purpose flour
Dough
2-¼ cups warm water
½ tsp. dry yeast
1 tbsp. salt
6-½ cups all-purpose or bread flour (approximately)
1 tbsp. butter (for rising bowl
Preparing the sponge:

In a large mixing bowl, combine ¾ cup lukewarm water (barely warm on the skin) and yeast and set aside for 5 minutes. Add the whole wheat flour and mix for 5 minutes, always stirring in the same direction. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula, cover with plastic wrap, and let the sponge ferment for at least 2 hours, or, preferably, overnight.

Mixing, kneading and first rising:

A little at a time, incorporate 2-¼ cups of water into the sponge, always stirring in the same direction. Sprinkle in the yeast and set aside to rest for 5 minutes. Stir in the salt. Stir in the flour one cup at a time. After 4 cups of flour have been added, the dough will become difficult to stir. Keep working at it until you can't stir anymore; then sprinkle ½ cup flour over a smooth surface, turn the dough out onto it, and knead the dough vigorously. Push against it, away from your body, with the heels of both hands; fold the top over, turn the dough a quarter-turn, and repeat the process. Continue pushing, folding and turning for at least 15 minutes, adding flour to the work surface ¼ cup at a time, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Once all of the flour has been added, if the dough is still sticky, don't rush to add more flour until you have kneaded for at least 12 minutes. If the dough is still sticky, add another ¼ cup of flour and continue to work at it.

The dough should be elegant and resilient, and spring back when poked or pulled. Form it into a ball, clean out the mixing bowl, grease it with butter or margarine (not oil), and put the dough into the bowl. Coat it with butter and cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp dish towel. Set the bowl in a spot where the temperature averages 75-80F, and let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

The dough rests:

Punch down the dough, shape it into a ball again, return it to the bowl, cover and let it sit for 30 minutes. This gives the gluten and chance to relax and makes it easier to form the loaves.

Forming the loaves:

Punch down the dough again, remove it from the bowl and cut it in two with a scraper or a knife; don't tear it apart. Flatten each piece with your hand; then, on a lightly buttered surface, rotate the dough with cupped hands, tucking under the sides to form a smooth ball. Turn the ball upside down and pinch any creases in the bottom. Turn the ball right side up and rotate some more.

Dust a baking sheet with flour or cornmeal and place the loaves on it, about 3" apart; or lightly flour two bowls or woven baskets, about 8" diameter, and put in the loaves upside down. Cover with a damp towel and set aside to rise for 1-½ hours, until the loaves have increased in size by about 50%.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Baking the loaves

If the loaves are in baskets, invert them gently onto a floured baking sheet about 2" apart. With a sharp knife, make a pattern of several shallow slashes on each loaf. This will keep the loaf from bursting once it begins to expand in the oven.

Put the loaves into the oven on the center rack, with no other racks above it. They must not be too close to each other or to the oven sides or door, or they will stick to each other or to the hot metal. Spray a fine mist of water over the tops of the loaves several times, then close the oven door. After a few minutes, briefly spray the loaves again. After a few more minutes, do it again. This spraying makes the crust thick and chewy. Turn down the oven heat to 400F. Bake the loaves for another 20-25 minutes, until the crusts have turned dark gold.

Remove the loaves from the oven, turn them upside down (use a potholder), and thump them on the bottom. If the sound is like knocking on a door, keep them out for good. Let the loaves cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes; during that time tiny cracks will blossom on the crust and their texture will stabilize.

Break the bread open with your hands, or slice with a sharp serrated knife. Serve with plenty of fresh butter.