JAMES BEARD'S QUICK FRENCH BREAD
When we want fresh crusty bread in a relative hurry, I always turn to this recipe, which I've evolved over the years from the starting point of James Beard's "French-style bread," which is actually Cuban bread and the best quick French-bread recipe I know of. You'll also find this one in my Soups and Starters section, where I present it in a soup-and-bread dinner "timetable" format.
Put 2 cups warm water in a large crockery mixing bowl; stir in 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 packages dry yeast; stir with a fork until the yeast dissolves, then set aside for about 10 minutes until it starts to bubble.
Mix 1 tablespoon salt into 5 cups bread flour. Start stirring the flour, a cup at a time, into the water-yeast mixture, continuing to work in flour until the dough is stiff; turn it out onto a floured bread board and knead, working in a little more flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and not at all sticky, about 10 minutes. Clean the bowl, pour in a little olive oil, and put in the dough, turning it so the upper surface has a little oil on it. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth towel and put it in a warm place (inside a gas oven with the pilot light on is perfect) to rise until more than doubled, about two hours. (If you want to do this a little earlier, no problem, just punch down the dough when it's fully risen and let it rise again; this will give you an extra hour and possibly result in even better bread.)
When the dough has risen, punch it down, and pat it out flat on your floured board. Cut it into two equal pieces and roll each into a long, free-form loaf. Sprinkle a little cornmeal on a baking sheet and place the loaves on it. Slash the top of each loaf with a sharp knife, making four or five diagonal slashes.
Put the loaves in a cold oven. Turn the heat to 400F, and bake for 35 minutes or until they're golden brown and sound hollow when you thump them.