Why This Recipe Works
The Italian cousin to the baguette, pane francese (which means “French bread”) is a long loaf with a moist and open crumb. Pane francese has a crisp yet forgiving exterior, and it’s slightly flatter in shape than a baguette. It’s nice for sandwiches or for dipping into olive oil. We started this bread with a sponge, which developed structure, depth of flavor, and a hint of tang in the loaf. After preparing this mixture (made with water, yeast, and 20 percent of the bread’s total weight of flour), we let it sit on the counter for 6 to 24 hours before mixing it into the dough. During this period the yeast consumed sugars in the flour. This fermentation process, visible by the rise and collapse of the mixture, created acid as a byproduct, which helps develop the strong gluten network that supports the loaf’s open crumb. Also, extending the overall fermentation time for the dough is what provides great flavor. A repeated series of gentle folds helped develop the gluten structure even further while also incorporating air for an open interior crumb. We proofed the loaf on a couche—a heavy linen cloth—to help the wet dough keep its shape. We slash the top of rustic loaves like pane francese with a lame, a curved-blade tool that gives our scores a dramatic raised edge that bakes up crisp. The last step? We preheated pans filled with lava rocks and added water to them to create a steamy oven, which encouraged a crisp crust.