Do you have any recommendations on the best way to manage the actual baking process? For example, how to set the oven up and any hints on how to tell when a loaf is cooked?
My advice is, place a thick baking tray one third up from the bottom and a small baking dish on the base of the oven when you first turn the oven on and set the temparature hot, say 220oc. This will make sure the trays are hot when you load the loaf into the chamber. (NB - Every oven will be differant and you will know your oven, so adjust as you see fit!)
Before you need to set the loaf in the oven, turn the oven to maximum heat for an extra blast and get an egg cup full of water ready by the side of the oven..
This is the exciting bit that you have been building up to and everything must come together!
Take the plastic off of your dough piece with out it touching the damp surface. Give the top of the loaf a very light dusting of flour and then with a sharp knife slash the surface of the loaf a couple of times in a quick and deliberate action to form a clean cut that should start to open slightly if the dough is happy. This is not only for the appearance of the loaf but it will encourage the pent up activity to spring where you ask it to.
If you have a slip then place the dough piece onto the slip, if not open the oven door and quickly pick up the dough piece and place straight onto the hot tray one third up from the bottom. Then quickly throw the water onto the baking dish at the bottom of the oven. This will create an important burst of steam needed to gelatinise the surface starches you have preserved through out the process. Close the door quickly and turn the heat down to 210oc.
The reason for setting onto a hot surface is to seal the base of the loaf first. The moisture created by the steam you have added to the chamber will not only create a better crust but will keep the surface supple for longer. As the base of the loaf is sealed on the hot surface, there is only one place for the spring to come out and that will be where you have asked it to with the slashing of the surface.
The loaf will be baked through in 30 mins but after this it will be a mater of personal choice of how you like your crust to be. It may help to open the door for a couple of minutes after the first 30 to draw off some of the excess steam and then close it while you fine tune your crust.
A point worth mentioning on the baking. If you are lucky enough to have a dough thermometer then if you probe the centre of the loaf and you reach the temperature of 96oc the loaf will be fully baked the rest of the crust will be cosmetic and a mater of personal preference.