This is the kind of bread that makes you feel amazed that you actually baked it yourself--when you smell it baking, when you break it open and see its lovely texture, and, most of all, when you taste it. Of course, it is a three-day bread, so there should be some payoff.
Day 1 is simply making the sponge: a matter of mixing flour, water, and a small amount of yeast, and ignoring it until it's nice and bubbly. Then it can be refrigerated until it's ready to play its part in Day 2.
On the second day, two cups of the sponge is mixed in with more bread flour, a little sugar, water, olive oil, salt, and a bit more yeast. The dough is so wet that it must be mixed with the paddle attachment first--until it comes together enough that you can use the dough hook.
The dough hook goes to town for at least eight minutes. It would take a long time if you did it by hand, and the dough is so wet and sticky that I'm not sure you could do it successfully.
After about three hours, the dough becomes very soft and billowy, and you do get to roll it around in flour by hand, which is nice because it has such a good feel.
Another rising time, although this one's only about an hour. We have about four hours of rising time so far, and we're well into Day 2. It doesn't look like this bread is going to be on the menu for dinner.
After just about an hour, it's puffy and bubbly--ready to shape into eight small loaves. In my mind, I had envisioned these as about the size of dinner rolls--they're described as "wedges," but they're much bigger. There are little loaves of bread all over the house.
All these loaves have to proof for another two hours or so. Then they're supposed to go in the refrigerator overnight. I was going to skip that step, but as it happened I had a meeting to go to, so I ended up making room in the refrigerator for eight large--and getting larger by the hour--wedges of bread dough.
On Day 3, however, I had nothing to do but take the pans out of the refrigerator, let them come to room temperature, and bake them. The directions said to bake the loaves for five minutes at 475, and then for another 20 minutes at 425. I did 450 and 400 in my convection oven, and the first batch still got very, very brown. (I couldn't fit all eight loaves on my baking stone, so I had to bake them in two batches).
You're supposed to sprinkle powdered sugar lightly on top of the loaves, but I omitted the sugar for the loaves I made for dinner. On a second go-round, I'm not sure I'd put powdered sugar on any of them. Even without the sugar on top, they're sweet enough to have as a breakfast treat with butter and jam, yet not so sweet that you can't have them for dinner. The powdered sugar topping is attractive at first, but it melts by the next day. Having sugar on top makes the rolls much less versatile as well.
This "Sweet Rustic Bread" is one of the master recipes from Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Brad Bakers. It's one of his earlier books--published in 1998, three years before The Bread Baker's Apprentice. These formulas are long, so instead of typing the recipe, I'll just link to it.