I bake bread every Friday and Sunday. For years I made the traditional challah for Friday night but one night at my daughter's house she served homenade french bread that was absolutely fantastic. I've been making this every Friday since. Everyone who eats it absolutely loves it. There is rarely any left for Saturday morning unless I make two loaves. And best of all, it is easy and seems foolproof. I have made this with unbleached flour mostly sometimes adding 1 cup of whole wheat. Recently I discovered King Arthur's "white" whole wheat and it's fantastic. So experiment.....here's the recipe.
2 cups water (about 105 degrees F)
1 1/2 TB yeast (I use active dry)
1 TB sugar
1 TB kosher salt
approx. 4 to 5 cups bread flour (my favorite is the yellow bag of Gold Medal)
approx. 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pour water in large bowl (not metal). Sprinkle yeast over water and then sprinkle sugar. Stir gently just to moisten the yeast. Allow to sit in a draft free area for about 10 to 20 minutes until nice and frothy.
Add 2 cups flour and 1 TB salt. Beat with wooden spoon about 2 to 3 minutes. Add another cup of flour and mix until incorporated. Continue doing this until the dough pulls away from the bowl and forms a ball.
Dump out onto floured surface and begin kneading adding flour a little at a time until dough becomes elastic and not sticky. This takes about 5 minutes but may vary depending on elevation, humidity, etc. It's usually pretty sticky when I first dump it out so I use a dough scraper to move the dough around as I add enough flour for me to work with easier.
Once dough forms a nice plump ball, let rest a couple minutes while you wash your hands and oil your bowl. I suggest a glass or plastic bowl or large container. Pour about 1/8 cup olive oil in bowl and swirl to coat sides. Place ball of dough in bowl and flip to coat all sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and then a damp thin cotton dish towel. Place in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled (about 1 hour). I usually turn my oven on for a few minutes before I mix the dough to get my kitchen nice and warm in the winter.
After dough has doubled in bulk, use your fingers to pull the dough from the sides of the bowl. This will allow the air to deflate and relax the dough. Allow the dough to rest uncovered while you prepare your pan.
Oil the baking pan with your favorite greasing method. Sprinkle a small amount of cornmeal on pan if desired. Remove dough from bowl and gently and quickly form a loaf. I usually aim for a loaf about 12 inches long but it doesn't really matter. Shape to your preference.
Move loaf to prepared pan and drizzle with a couple tablespoons of olive oil. You can allow to rise a few more minutes after shaping but I prefer to stick it in the oven as soon as I shape it. My reason is that the dough tends to spread out instead of rise up on the second rising.
Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes or until the bottom of the loaf is browned and the loaf sounds hollow.
It makes great toast also.