I love to bake. While daily cooking tends to be a necessary evil for me, baking is a pleasure. It demands full attention--read a recipe, follow directions, et voilá! Deliciousness. No one complains when you bake a chocolate cake. No one makes faces when forced to eat apple pie. And no one ever complains about the smell of fresh bread lingering in the house.
With the constant rush to make something semi-healthy for dinner that everyone will eat, daily cooking is a frantic, hurry-up-and-get-it-done stress.
Baking is intentional. Baking is relaxing.
Baking is celebratory.
But baking bread? Now, that makes me nervous.
Peter is our bread baker. He magically crafts scrumptious, braided loaves of “Sunday Bread,” as he calls it, using a recipe hand-written in Swiss German. It's a treat when he makes bread, but it's a treat that doesn't last long. We can easily polish off a loaf of bread in a few hours, especially if Tyler is home.
There's something very romantic about baking bread. I'm sure my grandparents would roll their eyes at my romanticizing bread making, since it was a daily chore for them. Still, the vision of crusty baguettes eaten warm from our oven often occupies my thoughts. Surely, it couldn't be that difficult.
So, when my new friends at Farm Chick Chit Chat introduced a bread baking blog party, I decided it was time to embrace the art of baking bread.
The bread of choice for my experiment?
Baguettes, of course.
A year ago, I requested The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion for a Christmas gift. It's 620 pages of intimidation. For instance, on page 239, you'll find this reassuring bit of baguette wisdom:
“Let this recipe be the starting point on a journey that may last for quite a long time—the 'perfect' baguette is a serious challenge for the home baker.”
Excuse me, I'd rather have a fool proof recipe, please—one that's going to work the first time out. Please, Mr. King Arthur, sir?
Anyway, I refused to be intimidated by a bit of flour, water, salt and yeast.
There was no turning back.
First, though, as a bread baking novice, I needed to figure out a few technical details.
Like what the heck is a poolish? Am I the only one who doesn't know what this is?
In case you, too, wondered...it's simply a type of starter that's based on equal parts (by weight) flour and water with a touch of yeast. It's used to enhance the flavor of the baguette. Then, when making the dough, the same amount of water is used with double the amount of flour. According to my guide, it's the “classic French proportions for a baguette.”
Oh lá lá! C'est manifique!
1-1/4 cup (5-1/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup (5-1/4 ounces) cool water
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
Generous 2-1/2 cups (10-1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup (5-1/4 ounces) cool water
- Combine the flour, water, and yeast in a medium mixing bowl. Mix until just blended.
- Let the mix rise for 12 hours or so. It should look spongy and aerated. It should be at peak flavor just before it starts to fall, so try to use it before its descent.
- Place the flour, yeast, and salt in a mixing bowl.
- Add the poolish and water.
- Mix the dough until it's just cohesive, approximately 30 seconds.
- Cover and let dough rest for 20 minutes.
- Knead the dough, using a mixer or your hands, until it's elastic but not perfectly smooth. The surface should still be a bit rough. You aren't kneading it thoroughly, because as it slowly rises, the gluten continues to develop. Too much kneading equals an “unpleasantly stiff” gluten during the long rise. (Seriously. Unpleasantly stiff. It's in the book.)
- Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for two hours, folding it over after the first hour. Folding helps strengthen the gluten. To fold the dough, lift it out of the bowl, gently deflate it, fold in half, and place back in the bowl. Folding expels the excess carbon dioxide and redistributes the yeast's food.
- Divide the dough into three pieces and form them into rough logs. Let them rest for 20 minutes.
- Shape the logs into long, thin baguettes.
- Proof the baguettes, covered, in the folds of a linen or cotton couche, until they are puffy—about 40 minutes. (Yes, I know...I had to look up “proofing” and “couche.” A couche is a rectangular piece of cloth that can cradle multiple rising baguettes in its folds, helping the dough retain its shape. To proof is to cover the dough, allowing it to rise. Clear acrylic proof covers are designed to cover the rising dough, but you can also use a wet towel or plastic wrap, as long as it doesn't stick to the dough and deflate it. I used a wet towel, held aloft by four glasses on either side of my parchment paper “couche.” Creative baking for the bread-tool challenged...)
- Preheat the oven and baking stone to 500 degrees. The stone helps create a crispier crust, but you can use a pan.
- Using a sharp serrated knife, make four diagonal cuts in each loaf, at a 45 degree angle.
- Spray the loaves with warm water to help replicate a steam oven.
- Place the loaves on the stone in the oven.
- Reduce the heat to 475 degrees and bake the loaves for 20 minutes.
- Remove the loaves from the oven when they are golden brown, and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Allow loaves to cool completely before cutting, otherwise the texture might be gummy, since they will contain moisture that migrates out as they cool.
As I pulled the loaves from the oven, my first thought was--
...those are some seriously homely baguettes.
In fact, I wrote off the baguette experiment as a failure.
But then, I decided that I needed to try a tiny piece.
And you know what?
It. Was. Good.
Ugly, but tasty. The crust? Crispy. The interior was flavorful, but a little too heavy.
For a first try—it wasn't too bad.
When I finally went to bed at 1 a.m., Peter—who I thought was asleep—got out of bed to try a piece, enticed by the smell lingering throughout the house.
And he liked it!
It really did smell amazing.
In fact, everyone seemed to deem my experiment a success. From the three loaves, this is what remains (less than 24 hours later—and Tyler isn't even home from college):
So, it's true. The “perfect” baguette eluded me this time, but I baked some pretty darn good bread.
I will master the Art of French Baking.
Happy baking to you!