Start with some stuff that's likely to lead to bread. Life on Earth didn't just spring out of nothing, after all: there were comets delivering water, heat from the sun, etc. So if you start in a completely sterile environment, bread is unlikely to happen too. I suggest something like the "warm little pond" pictured below:
I've found that it speeds things along if you intervene and mix some of these things together. The amount of bread you get is proportional to the amount of water that starts it, so I put one cup of water in the mixing bowl. When nothing happened after a while, I added a couple scoops of flour, a little yeast and salt. It's in this way that I found these ingredients to be all essential to good bread. All very scientific.
Here's where different species of bread diverge. I was hoping for long skinny loaves, and for that we need a pretty firm dough. Not a sticky gooey mess when you touch it. When in doubt of this, add a little more flour--the dough will simply refuse to accept it if you add too much. It's easier to get the dough too wet, which will cause problems with its development later. I was lucky in this instance, and my two generous scoops were exactly enough. So out it comes, evolving into a land critter. It's pale and amorphous like any creature that's not fully developed.
Clearly, the nascent creature needed to mature, so I gave it a light coat of olive oil to keep it from drying out, and put it in a larger bowl (to give it plenty of room), and covered it with a plate. It was early evening by then, so I let it rise for a couple of hours, and then put it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning I could see it had progressed in its development.
The round dish will be covered in the oven, allowing steam to envelop the crust as it bakes. The bottom of the dish is buttered and sprinkled with cornmeal so that it won't stick.
When Igor returned with the egg whites I instructed him to whip them into a frenzy and then add rosemary and basil from the garden, and a little olive oil, salt, and water. This we basted the doughs with, and then let them rise for about three hours. The long loaves we slashed three times each to let them expand gracefully.
They came out looking nice. After I set them on the counter, I slid in the covered dish with the round loaf inside.
Eating bread. I assume everyone thinks they know how to eat bread, but I think most people are wrong about that. For some reason, it's accepted practice to let the bread cool before eating. Some books on baking will extol the wonderful sound of the crust crackling as it cools. This is nuts.
You wouldn't grill a steak or fish fillet and then let it sit for half an hour before eating it, would you? Or make a big pot of spaghetti and wait for it to get cold before serving. Or let your ice cream melt. It's the same thing with bread--it will never be as good as it is coming right out of the oven. If the crust is perfect coming out, it will become soggy from the steam within a few minutes. If you bake it so long that the crust stays hard despite this, it will be a thick tough crust.
The exception to this may be the German Brötchen, which maintains a perfect crust for hours somehow. I don't know how they do it. I asked some German bakers in Charleston one time, but they said it was impossible to make here in the South because of the humidity. I'm not sure I buy that answer. I think it's a deep dark secret.
So anyway, the conversation around the bread shouldn't be "could you pass me a slice of bread, please?" in order to get a cold limp slab that you try to revive with butter. It should be more like:
Mom! I asked first!In this case, I tore off a chunk as soon as I could handle it, drizzled it with olive oil, put a slice of fresh mozzarella and a basil leaf:
I get the end piece--you got it last time!
Is there another loaf still in the oven?
Careful! It's right out of the oven.
Ow! Where are the mitts?
The subtle crunch of a just-right Panis longis crust is a singular pleasure. It's not like a potato chip or cracker. It's multi-dimensional, crunching through layers of crust, the crumb of the bread adding complexity to the top. It doesn't always work that way. Too much water in the dough and the inside will be a shaggy mess while the crust becomes too thick. Or if you over-bake, the crust becomes rigid and hard. This time I got it exactly right. It was without exaggeration the best Panis longis I've ever eaten.
Normally, the Panis roundis steals the show. Because it's baked in a container, the steam works the crust differently, and if you get it just right, you have a eggshell crust, hard and crispy, but very, very thin. It will barely support the bread it contains. I usually make it as a treat for a meal, and the timing is tricky. But when it comes out of the oven everything else stops and we eat the the bread. It absolutely has to be eaten right out of the oven. It took about 40 minutes this time, and I had no trouble getting it out of the dish.
I can't say the basil made any difference, and it looks kind of strange. The egg white makes it brown faster, so it's easy to overestimate how done it is. Be sure and tap on the bottom. It should be hard too. I like to take it out of the dish and give it a few minutes on the rack bare to harden the bottom crust a bit.
This loaf you have to slice very carefully with an oven mitt to protect your hand. It's fragile, and will collapse easily. But if the crust is right, you can easily saw off the very end of it, which is the best part, maybe the best bread anyone has ever eaten in the history of the world. It should have a hard delicate crust, not as many layers as the Panis longis, but crispy with a wispy crumb that is mostly air. After cutting off the end, I usually cut triangular pieces rather than trying to cut all the way across and risk mangling it.
After it cools a few minutes it wilts. Trying to slice it then gives you something like this:
Here's a happier picture to finish with.