Second: I can tell you what I've had luck with. I've been making bread the last couple of years, usually just on Saturdays for dinner because you have to start a number of hours early. I started with the recipe for French bread in a Julia Child cookbook. I've stuck to that, with just the addition of a small amount of vegetable oil for a springier texture. I use a Black and Decker breadmaker to mix the dough for the first rise then do the rest by hand, although you could do the first stage in a food processor or by hand with the same recipe:
1 1/2 cup water at 100*F 2 tsp yeast (I use the granulated yeast in a jar, sold for breadmaker machines) 1/2 tsp sugar
mix the yeast, water, sugar and wait 5 minutes
add 1 tbsp vegetable oil (canola ) to the water - it gets mixed in once the dry ingredients are added.
mix together 3 1/2 cup bread flour 1 tsp table salt 3 tbsp high gluten flour (not essential, but gives better structure to the bread, replace volume with regular flour otherwise)
add the dry ingredients to the wet.
At this point you could mix and knead by hand or use a food processor or breadmaker. When the mixing gets started, you'll have to add 1/4-1/2 cup more water to this mix to get the dough texture you want. The mixture needs to cling together in a ball after the initial mixing and the water has soaked through the flour. I like to keep the dough with just enough water to stay pliable, otherwise I find it gets too sticky and sags after rising, so I leave the last of the water to be added little by little until I get the texture right. There's going to be some trial and error here until you get a feel for what is too sticky to work with and what is too dry to knead.
I use the breadmaker dough setting here, which mixes and kneads for me for about 15 minutes before letting the dough rise and then stops without baking.
After a rise of 1 hour at 110*F, its ready to be punched down and kneaded by hand. I've a 12x18" piece of slate I use to knead on, just dust with flour. Knead down, with the heel of the palms, fold the dough forward on itself bottom to top, rotate right 90 degees and do it again. After about 15 or so folds and turns you can see the gluten skin starting to draw tight so take it easy. If you work it too much, the gluten skin pulls kind of stringy and tears rather than stretches and the bubbles won't hold. When you get there, let the dough rest under a cloth in a bowl in a warm spot (I put if back in the teflon lined breadmaker mixing compartment to rest as the inside of the maker is still warm) and rise again. That's usually about another hour to double volume again.
Back to the slate, dusted with flour, and form the loaf. I start as with the kneading. Press the dough down gently to a roughly square form. Crease the dough left to right and fold up bottom to top - pinching along the seam to close it as you go - and then roll the loaf a 1/4 way away from you, upward so the seam is now pointing away from you. Don't rotate the loaf to the right but instead crease it left to right again along the long axis of the loaf so you have a depression parallel to the first seam. Fold and pinch again along the seam to hold it together. By this point, the loaf is about 15 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. I like to roll the whole loaf forward and back to smooth the texture, the one last crease along the length and fold up to form a last seam and pinched closed. This seam gets turned to the bottom of the loaf when you are done so that the smooth surface is on top. Make sure you pinch the edges together or it will start to come 'undone' as the loaf rises.
Many loafs I made died a deflated death and looks like flatbread after a lot of work properly forming the loaf only to have them mangled trying to get them into the oven. I came up with a way to get a nice puffy loaf with a good crisp skin: I bent the rack you see in the photo from a cookie cooling rack to form a cradle with the shape of the bread. I cover this with a sheet of silicon oven liner cloth - though parchment paper would work too - and lay my newly formed loaf on this trough to rise. Rather than trying to move the delicate risen loaf into the oven, the formed loaf rises in place on this rack and the whole thing goes into the oven together. No flat bottom from forming on a cookie sheet, no deflating from fighting with a forming board, and no sticking to a cookie sheet either .
Let the loaf rest and rise covered with a clean tea towel in a warm place (about 1 1/2 hours to reach final size) . Slash the top surface diagonally 3 or 4 times to a depth of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (must use a razor blade, x-acto blade or similar to cut without deflating the loaf) to allow the bread a final expansion about 10 minutes before going into the oven.
The loaf, rack and all, goes into a preheated oven at 450*F for 20 minutes. I keep a cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven that stores heat during the pre-heat. As soon as the bread is in the oven, dump 1 cup of boiling water into the skillet and close the door to trap the steam. The high temp and steam forms a crisp brown crust that gives that great snap to French bread.
At 20 minutes, put a temperature probe into the loaf and pull from the oven when the internal temp reaches 200*F.
The bread needs to rest a good 1/2 hour on a rack before you try to do anything with it - in the meantime if you've got a good loaf and a nice crust you can enjoy listening to the bread 'sing' to you as the loaf shrinks and the crust crackles while it cools.
If anyone's interested, I can shoot some photos next time I do this to show what I mean and repost.
Ya, I just had to be checking the temperature somewhere, otherwise the urge to peek inside would have driver me crazy! Heck, if it wouldn't get coated with smoke and goo I'd have a camera in there and give up cable .