Sourdough French Bread

Makes two small loaves or one large loaf. Recipe provided by Dave Wetzel.

11/2 cups warm water, lukewarm for compressed yeast

1 package yeast, active dry or compressed

1 cup starter

4 cups unsifted regular all-purpose flour

2 tsps. salt

2 tsps. sugar

1/2 tsp. soda

2 cups unsifted regular all-purpose flour

1. Pour warm water into a large mixing bowl and stir in the yeast. Add the starter, 4 cups flour, salt and sugar. Stir vigorously for about 3 minutes with a wooden spoon. Turn into a large greased bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 11/2 to 2 hours.

2. Mix soda with 1 cup of the remaining flour and stir in; the dough will be very stiff. Turn dough out onto a floured board and begin kneading, adding the remaining flour, or more, to control the stickiness. Knead until satiny, at least 8 minutes, until the dough cannot absorb any more flour.

3. Shape into two oblong loaves or one large round loaf. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, cover and set in a warm place. Let rise until nearly doubled in size, 1 to 11/2 hours. Just before baking, brush outside with water and make diagonal slashes across the top with a sharp knife or razor.

4. Put a shallow pan of hot water in the bottom of the oven. Bake at 400 degrees until the crust is medium dark brown, 45 to 50 minutes. For a heavier crust, remove loaf from the oven 10 minutes before it is done, brush with salted water and return to a 425-degree oven for the remaining time.