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Patience pays off

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Mix. Knead. Rise. Bake. Eat. With an early morning start, these are the steps I used to take to produce delicious bread that was warm from the oven and ready to eat by suppertime. But that has all changed since I spent a day at Collegeville Artisan Bakery with head baker Steve Nelson.

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Tucked into a large commercial baking kitchen in St. Joseph, Minn., warmed by ovens and oozing with rising dough, I joined eight others to learn how to make artisan bread. I knew I was in the right class when Nelson told us we'd be making bread with crust that would cut our gums. It's bread with a rich, deep golden brown crunchy crust and a creamy-colored chewy inside. You can get it anywhere in Europe and feel so lucky when you can find it in the Midwest section of the United States.

Nelson teaches home bakers how to use his long and slow process for making bread that produces complexity of flavor and texture. Best of all, he teaches them how to use that process right in their own kitchens. It's not difficult. It just takes patience and a little bit of experimenting. And it all starts with pre-fermentation.

First, we mix a poolish, a wet sponge made with equal amounts of flour and water, a little yeast and no salt. This mixture bubbles and grows for several hours, teasing complex flavor from the blend.

Then, more flour and water are added along with salt and maybe a little more yeast. And, yes, the dough takes another long, cozy nap as it continues to grow and develop more flavor.

Finally, it's time to shape and bake the dough. The final reward is the first bite of bread that just might cause your gums to bleed. When that happens, you know you've succeeded.

Nelson didn't send his students home with any exact recipes, but assured us that we could achieve the same delicious results with any bread recipe we use at home. I've taken my favorite Italian bread recipe and adapted it, using pre-fermentation and lots of patience for the long and slow method I learned at Collegeville Artisan Bakery. The dough that I've always turned into a football-shaped loaf of bread has become two round flat loaves of Italian focaccia. It took a couple of days, but the results are heavenly. This kind of bread just doesn't come from simply dissolving yeast in water.

Mix half of the water called for in the recipe with an equal amount of the flour and some yeast. Pre-ferment. Mix in the rest of the water and flour, salt and a little more yeast. Knead. Ferment. Bake. Results: Fragrant, chewy, irregular-textured delicious bread. It's worth the wait. Eat!

Focaccia

1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons), divided

2 cups filtered or bottled water, room temperature, divided

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

4 cups all-purpose flour, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil for brushing tops of loaves

Kosher salt or sea salt for sprinkling on loaves

Make poolish by pouring 1 cup water into a medium bowl. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon yeast over the water. Whisk until lumps are dissolved. Add 1 cup flour and mix with whisk until smooth. Place poolish in a warm place and let sit for 2 to 3 hours, covered loosely. Bubbles will appear on the surface of the poolish.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and transfer to refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight. This pre-ferment allows the poolish to develop its flavor.

Place the poolish, remaining 1 cup of water and 1-1/4 teaspoons yeast in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer. Mix by hand to blend ingredients or use paddle attachment of mixer on low speed to blend. Switch to the hook attachment. Add remaining 3 cups of flour and 1-1/2 teaspoons salt. Mix on low speed until ingredients are combined, then switch to medium speed and mix for 10 to 12 minutes. If mixing by hand, stir with wooden spoon to blend in flour and salt. Knead the dough by hand for about 15 minutes. Finished dough will be slightly wet, but will pull away from sides of bowl and have an elastic texture. When you grab a pinch of dough and gently pull, it will stretch rather than break.

With floured hands, shape dough into a ball. Place the dough in an oiled medium-sized bowl. Turn it over so oil-coated dough is on top. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest in a warm place for a few hours. Dough will almost double in size.

Set aside the bottoms from two 9-inch springform pans. Use some of the olive oil to brush on the inside of the sides of the pans. Set the rings on parchment-lined baking sheets with no sides. If baking with a stone in the oven, be sure to sprinkle corn meal on the sheet before placing the parchment. Set greased rings on parchment-lined pans.

Pull dough from bowl onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough in half. Use fingers to press each half into the rings. The dough should just about fill the bottom of the rings. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for another hour. The dough will rise slightly.

While loaves are resting, preheat oven. If using a baking stone, place it in the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees. If you won't be using a baking stone, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a shallow pan on the lowest rack in the oven.

Remove plastic wrap from dough and use fingers to push dimples into the surface. Brush tops with olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher or sea salt.

For loaves going onto baking stone, slide the focaccia along with the parchment right onto the stone. Pour 4 cups hot water into the hot shallow pan. Quickly close the oven. Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.

When baking loaves without a stone, place parchment-lined baking sheet with loaves right into a preheated 450-degree oven. Pour 4 cups hot water into the hot shallow pan. Quickly close the oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown.

Let loaves cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before slicing. The focaccia is best served warm. Makes two loaves.

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