I have baked about a half dozen different kind of breads in the past few months and I have been really enjoying it. Bread baking is almost therapeutic and the kneading is the best part. If you don't feel that way, bread baking will become a chore and not a delight. To be able to get out a loaf of delicious bread from a few ingredients is a wonder - not to mention the smell of fresh baked bread that envelopes the house.
The two breads that I find myself shying away from are baguettes and bagels. Having had very good quality breads of both kinds, I know that I will constantly compare mine to those, and didn't want to attempt it. Until I came across a baguette recipe at a Year in Bread. Susan has written the instructions so clearly and precisely, that I found myself wondering whether I could attempt it. I did try it and it was every bit as wonderful as any Parisian baguette I've had.
If you enjoy baking bread, this is a must-try recipe. Her instructions are very detailed - mine are much more casually written.
(adapted from A Year in Bread)
1 1/2 cups Water
1 tsp Instant Yeast
3 1/4 cups Flour (I used all-purpose)
1 1/2 tsp Sea Salt (I used regular salt)
Combine all the ingredients together with a spatula in a large bowl. They will come together as a big dry clumpy dough. Cover with a muslin cloth and allow to rest for 20 minutes. This is great for the yeast to start doing it's thing.
Empty the contents onto a lightly floured surface and begin to knead the dough, adding as little extra flour as possible. If it feels sticky, just dust your hands or the surface with flour and continue kneading. Knead for 10-12 minutes until the dough starts feeling smooth and soft. It took about 10 minutes for me to get to this point.
Transfer the dough to a clear plastic, oiled container. Mark a spot on the container which will indicate how much it should rise to be 1.5 times its size. Cover the container with a muslin cloth and leave in a warm place (about 70-75 degrees F).
Giving it a turn:
When the dough reaches the 1.5 times mark, empty the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Press the dough out gently (you don't want those wonderful air bubbles to completely go away), into a rough rectangle with the short end facing you.
Fold the top edge halfway down to the middle. Now fold the bottom edge halfway up so the bottom edge slightly overlaps the top edge. Slide your hands under the dough and flip it over so the folds are underneath. Slip the dough back into the oiled container and cover again with muslin. Let it rise half-way to the previous mark (about 25% or approximately 45 minutes).
I preheated the oven to 235 deg C (or 450 deg F) after the 45 minutes (this is about an hour before you start baking - if your oven heats up faster, you could wait and switch it on later - but it needs to be really hot when you are ready to bake). If you have a baking stone and cast iron skillet, allow both to warm up with the oven. I don't have a baking stone, so didn't use one. I also don't have a cast iron skillet, so didn't do that either.
Empty the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 3 equal parts (I just eye-balled this, but you could weigh it to make sure its equal).
Press the dough gently into a rectangle. Fold it length-wise.
Repeat for the other 2 pieces. Cover with a muslin cloth and let it rest for 10 minutes. This is just to relax the bread, which will make it easier to shape.
I used Susan's instructions plus this video for shaping a baguette. Its pretty simple, but I'm sure it comes with practice - I followed instructions to the T. I've tried to break it down here:
1. First pat the first portion of dough into a rough rectangle (about 3" by 5"), with the long side facing you.
2. Bring the top edge down to the center. Press gently to seal. Bring the bottom edge up to the center mark and press again to seal. Now you have a seal down the center. Now fold the entire skinny rectangle in half length-wise. With the heel of your palm (I used my finger tips) seal the dough gently leaving the edges rounded.
3. Stretch the log by using a gently rolling motion with the palms of your hands. Start at the center and simultaneously roll and stretch the log as your palms get to the end. I got it to about 13", which is as long as my oven would hold.
4. Repeat for the other two pieces of dough.
Use a large piece of canvas or heavy smooth fabric (I used a heavy towel that was not terry cloth (you don't want anything that's fuzzy). Dust the cloth heavily with flour. Lay the formed baguettes about 2" apart on the cloth.
Pinch the cloth between the baguettes to bring them up and form a sort of wall between the baguettes. This is to ensure that they hold their shape.
Sprinkle the baguettes with flour and cover with a muslin cloth. Leave to rise for 30 minutes.
Remove the muslin, and straighten out the heavy fabric. Use a blade or a sharp serrated knife to make diagonal cuts on the surface of the bread. The indentations should be about 1/2" to 3/4" deep (I didn't measure mine - but I made sure it wasn't too deep).
The indentations not only make the bread look pretty when done, but they also help steam to escape while baking. As Susan says "slash quickly and confidently".
I transferred the baguettes onto a baking sheet and slipped the sheet into the oven. Also put a tray filled with 1/2 cup of ice at the bottom rack of the oven to create steam. Bake for about 20-25 minutes (mine took 25 minutes). Take them out when they are golden.
Remove from oven and let it cool for about 5 minutes. They are best eaten warm. We finished 2 1/2 baguettes between 5 of us within a matter of hours. If keeping it for the next day, they need to be toasted before eating.
Phew - I know it's long - but when you have fresh homemade baguettes at the end, hey, there's nothing more satisfying!
This is off to dear DK at Culinary Bazaar for AWED: France.