We've been making and eating a lot of Italian bread, to the exclusion of almost every other kind. With the two of us at it, it takes 20 minutes to measure, mix, and clean up, leaving the dough ready for the first rise.
*As soon as the dough doubles in size, it's punched down, separated into two balls and left to double in size yet again. Once it does so, I punch it down one last time, form into long loaves and leave it on the baking stone to rise one more time. Split down the middle, brush on melted butter and bake. We preheat the oven to 450 and lower to 375 after 5 minutes; two giant loaves of lightish bread with a great crust after about 40 minutes.
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water - dissolve the yeast in the water and let sit 5 minutes
2 cups warm water with 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in it
6-7 cups flour (We use King Arthur flour -- unbleached/unbromated)
Start with 5 cups of flour and mix in the rest of the ingredients; add however much flour you need to get the dough out of the bowl and onto a lightly floured board. Once the dough is smooth and relatively non-sticky, stop kneading; the more you knead, the stickier it will get and the more flour you'll need. Plop into lightly greased bowl (we use butter) for rising.
As an added bonus, if you double the yeast, after letting the dough rise once, you can punch it down, separate and freeze it for baking another time. Then, just let it defrost and continue the instructions from *after the first rise.