I Baked Vienna Bread Yesterday

It’s Kathleen’s favorite of all the breads I bake. It is soft as you please inside, with a crust that’s hard as a rock. Not unlike a skull, I suppose.
My mother was born in Vienna, so my expertise with this loaf could be considered genetic. I got the recipe from Dolores Casella’s indispensible A World of Breads (1966, David White Co.) and I follow it practically to the letter.
You use twice the yeast you ordinarily might (4 ½ teaspoons), dissolving it plus one tablespoon of sugar in a quarter-cup of warm water. Do this in a big mixing bowl and you won’t have to switch receptacles. While that’s beginning to bubble, you scald one cup of milk, to which you add an equal amount of cold water. Make sure the milk/water is lukewarm (if too hot, it kills that poor little yeast), then stir it into the yeast/sugar. Casella’s book says to add eight cups of flour (!) and a whole tablespoonful of salt (!!), but I’ve found there’s not really enough liquid to accommodate that, so either make it six cups of flour or work in another cup or so of warm water. Knead it a whole lot—and there’s a whole lot to knead—and when it’s “satiny,” as they say, roll it into a ball and let it rise in the same mixing bowl you’ve already been using, with a dishtowel or plastic wrap placed over the top. After an hour and a half, punch the dough down, divide it and shape it into two or three loaves (I do long ovals, but round loaves hold their shape well too). I fit them side-by-side on a big cast-iron pizza pan which has been greased and sprinkled with corn meal (per Casella’s recipe. I don’t do the cornmeal thing for other breads, but I like her style here.) Make slashes in the dough so it can stretch a bit, then let it rise for another hour. Before that hour’s over, preheat the oven for 450 degrees. Before baking, mix an egg white with a little water (like, I don’t know, a tablespoon or two?) and paint the loaves with it. The whites can squirm around if not mixed well, and you want to get this right because otherwise you get just fried egg on the pan instead of a crunchy crust. I actually own a pastry brush but when I’m worried about a particularly light dough caving in I just dip a paper towel in the egg wash instead and drag it carefully about the loaves. Use over half of the egg wash, but save some for later. (Insert “all your eggs in one basket” joke here.)
Bake at that extreme heat of 450 degrees for ten minutes, then knock the temp down to 350 and keep the bread in the oven for another fifty minutes. As if an hour of baking isn’t enough (and for most breads that’s plenty), after that you’re expected to take the bread out of the over, carefully apply more egg/water to the now well-formed and dark crust, and bake it for half an hour more.
Yes, two and a half hours of rising and an hour and a half of baking, plus that egg nonsense. But absolutely worth the effort. (Besides, like it’s a bad thing to have a hot oven going all afternoon on one of the coldest days of the year?)
According to my mother and grandmother, in the early 20th century the Viennese were really good at things like opera and skiing. This is another painstaking, time-consuming luxury they excelled at.

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