I recently procured, after a long wait and a few bucks more than I wanted to spend, a copy of Anne Willan's "Perfect Breads".
I've just started cooking my way through it. The first recipe is for two loaves (smaller than usual loaves -- an 8x2, not 8.5x2.5 - -makes a difference in how the loaves look. This must be a standard size in Great Britain or maybe France) of regular old white bread.
I've had difficulties with white bread at home for years. The problems were many and differing by recipe: too flat, too crumbly, just too coarsely-textured, gummy though fully baked, dry, tasteless, etc. The only good, close-textured white bread that had ever worked for me was a Betty Crocker recipe which involved about 2/3 of a cup of shortening! I don't believe that bread needs that much fat. The "sandwich bread" recipe from the King Arthur flour people was a huge dissapointment. The Fanny Farmer Baking Book bread was some of the worst I've ever made or tasted. So many "old-fashioned white bread" recipes produced flat or flavorless loaves. Pain de mie was good, but a bit fussy for everyday white bread usage.
Anne Willan's simple recipe contains "strong" (meaning high protein, I believe) white flour, milk, water, salt, yeast, and butter for the pans and for the top of the baked loaf only. The big change was the sponge that was made before.
I've heard of sponge (biga, in Italian, I believe) for things like peasant/country breads, but never for a plain white loaf.
The sponge only needed to rise for about an hour before incorporated into the overall dough. Technically, this made for three rises (the sponge rising, the dough rise, and the shaped loaf rise), but the time was not hugely increased.
The difference in flavor and texture is remarkable. This is some beautifully close-texured, non-crumbly bread. It is also deliciously full-flavored. This bread is great on it's own ( I know now why the Brits eat bread and butter, and don't even bother to toast it -- this bread is this good), and makes an amazing sandwich.
Every once and a while I find a home-cooked or -baked product that appears head and shoulders above others of it's type.
If you are looking for a good homemade white bread recipe, look for one with a preliminary sponge (water, yeast, some flour) or "biga". It is well worth the extra time.
This first recipe was so good I can hardly wait to go on to her French bread, wholewheat (she calls it "wholemeal") bread, tea breads, brioches, rolls, etc. I'll keep you posted!
Oh, and I'll soon be posting that apple roll recipe that someone (I'm sorry I forget who!) asked me for. My apple tree is now weighted down, and my baby sleeps 2-3 hours in the afternoon, so I'll be pulling that recipe out and doing some more baking very soon!