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Thursday, August 23, 2012

French Baguette

Here's a recipe I can't make very easily right now. This little kitchen is starting to get on my nerves. The good news/bad news is that it appears we have a place to live lined up, unfortunately, we can't move in for another two months. Well, finally knowing how long I will be in this little kitchen, I decided today to purchase a few ingredient items I had been putting off. I was hesitant to buy too many herbs and spices, for instance, since I have sooooooo many in our household shipment, but two more months with only salt, pepper, cinnamon, garlic powder, and Mrs. Dash was a little more than I could handle.

I may have to wait a few months to make this recipe, but I can clearly remember just how good it was the last time I made it. I've made many, many batches of french baguettes over the last few years. I've tried to keep notes about what I was doing each time and how it impacted the final result. I knew what I was shooting for as an end result, and each batch got me a little closer. This recipe and set of techniques gets me to that happy place. It results in a flavorful bread with a wonderfully crispy crust and a soft, slightly chewy inside.

Begin by mixing all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer; hold back about a third of the flour at this point, however. Keeping some of the flour out of the mix now allows you to start out beating the dough with a paddle attachment to help hydrate the flour and activate the gluten. Beat the dough for 2-3 minutes on medium.

Speaking of ingredients, let's talk about them in a little more detail. In France, the ingredients for a baguette are stipulated by law: flour, salt, water, and yeast. You'll notice that I have one additional ingredient. This ingredient, diastatic malt, is completely optional, but I really like using it for a couple of reasons. There are two types of malt and diastatic is the one you want for bread making (I get mine from Barry Farms). Diastatic malt contains enzymes that helps the yeast to convert the maltose in the flour into the glucose they want to eat, so it helps with gas production. Additionally, it helps the bread to develop good color in the crust as it bakes. Lastly, I think it gives an extra kick in the flavor department that is very subtle, but super tasty. Use it or not at your discretion.

Switch to the dough hook and add the rest of the flour slowly. Because the humidity can significantly alter just how much flour is required, you may need slightly more or less than the recipe calls for. What you are looking for is the dough to clean off the sides of the bowl, but to never quite clean the bottom of the bowl. The dough should be kneaded for 5-8 minutes, until the gluten is well developed. You can tell the dough is ready because, while it will never quite lose its stickiness, it will form a nice, smooth dough that is elastic and can form a decent "windowpane."

What's a windowpane, you ask? Take a small piece of dough and stretch it out with your fingers, attempting to form a thin film of dough. If it will stretch and become translucent, you're good to go; if it tears and won't form a thin sheet, give it another minute of two in the mixer. I appear to have neglected to take a picture of this technique, so here's a good site showing what it should look like.

Once the dough is well kneaded, drop it into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for one hour. After the hour has passed, knock the dough down, recover, and place in the refrigerator for 8-16 hours. Technically, you can skip this step but I don't advise it; it is during this step that all those complex flavors are developed.

When ready to finish making the bread, pull the bowl of dough out of the refrigerator. Lightly flour the counter and dump the dough out. Be somewhat gentle here, you don't want to completely degas the dough. Because the dough is cold, it should be fairly manageable. Gently press and stretch the dough out until it is as long/wide as you want your loaves to be. My pan makes 16-inch baguettes, so that's what I worked toward. Cut the dough into three equal parts parallel to that long side. Roll each baguette up and pinch the seams together. Place seam side down on a lightly oiled baguette pan. I really like the perforated pan
King Arthur Flour puts out.

Lightly cover the baguettes with plastic wrap and let them rise until they are at least doubled. Depending on room temperature and how happy your yeast is, that can be anywhere from 1-3 hours.

At this point, you want to get your oven ready. It's the high heat and steam features of bakery ovens that produce that perfect baguette texture that is so elusive at home. I have found that a 475° F oven works pretty well. You'll just want to be sure you have a clean oven before you start! Before you preheat it though, we need to talk about the steam. I've tried so many different techniques and my favorite by far involves the use of a 6-inch terra cotta saucer.

Place the saucer on a bottom rack to preheat with the oven. When the baguettes are placed in the oven, we'll pour 2 TBS of hot water into the saucer. This hot water added to a hot saucer provides the steam we want. Steam helps to maximize how much of a last rise you get in the oven and also helps with crust development. But you only want steam to be available for the first part of the baking, so only using 2 TBS of water allows the steam to run out at about the point where we want to start using a dry heat to finish the baking.

The last step before sticking the loaves in the oven is to score them. Scoring is often a decorative touch, but it also is very functional; it helps to maximize and evenly distribute that last spring you get from the yeast when the loaves are placed in the oven. Traditionally, bakers use a lame (pronounced /lam/). This is a special, double edged razor. While I think they come in a flat bladed version, all I could find was this curved one, which caused me no end of grief. I finally gave up trying and found that a surgical scalpel works great. I got mine from Jeffer's Livestock. They are cheap, sterile when purchased, and you can change the blades out as they lose their edge.

There are a few tricks to properly scoring baguettes. The first is to make sure to dip your blade in ice water before every single cut. If you don't, your blade will drag horribly. The other key is the angle at which you cut. The idea is to form a fairly thin flap, not a deep valley, in the loaf. Hold the knife so it is sideways, not straight up and down, and basically slice sideways into the loaf about a half to three-quarters of an inch. This cut allows the loaf to expand easily and evenly for maximum spring. The last important tip is to cut fewer, long slices parallel to the loaf than more, shorter slices across the loaf. As soon as the loaf is scored and the oven is preheated to 475° F, the loaves are ready to be baked. Pour 2 TBS of hot water into the saucer and place the loaves in the oven to bake for 25-30 minutes or until they are golden and sound hollow when tapped.

Lastly, everyone knows that French bread is best the day it is baked, but this recipe makes three loaves. What do you do with the other two? While you can freeze them fully baked and simply let them come to room temperature before using, if you want to have that fresh from the oven flavor and texture on demand, then simply parbake the loaves, cool, and freeze. Parbaking means that you have baked the loaves long enough for the bread to be fully baked inside, but removing it from the oven before the crust has fully developed, about 20 minutes. Cool the loaves completely and then wrap tightly in plastic wrap. When you are ready for a fresh baked loaf, remove it from the freezer and unwrap. Place in a cold oven and set the thermostat at 375° F. Let the bread and oven heat up together and bake until the bread has developed that gorgeous golden crust.

Here comes the formula, but I need to let you know what I've got going on here. I have provided the formula in three different forms. The first is traditional imperial measurements. The second is given in grams. I have recently come to conclusion that I like mass measurements for simple bread recipes like this one. I simply place the bowl on the scale and add each ingredient, taring between each addition. The last formula given is the baker's math version. I talk about that in this post. The baker's math version allows you to easily scale the recipe to whatever amount you want.

French Baguette
Yield: 3 16" loaves, a shy 1 lb each

5 1/4 cup / 765 g / 100 bread flour
2 1/4 tsp / 7.7 g / 1 diastatic malt (optional)
1 3/4 c + 2 TBS / 444 g / 58 lukewarm water
shy 2 tsp / 15.3 g / 2 table salt
1 1/2 tsp / 6 g / 0.8 instant yeast

Mix all ingredients, less 2 cups of flour into the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat with a paddle attachment 2-3 minutes on medium speed. Switch to a dough hook and add the remaining flour. Knead on low for another 5-8 minutes, until the dough pulls away from the sides (but not completely from the bottom) and will form a nice windowpane. Dump the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for one hour. Knock the dough down, recover, and place in the refrigerator for 8-16 hours.

Lightly flour the counter and dump the cold dough onto it. Gently roll, press, or pull the dough into a rectangle as long as you want your loaves to be. Cut the dough into three even rectangles. Roll each rectangle into a loaf and pinch the seams shut. Place on a lightly oiled baguette pan, seam side down. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise until at least double, 1-3 hours.

Place a 6-inch terra cotta saucer on the bottom shelf of your oven and preheat to 475° F. Carefully remove the plastic wrap and score the loaves. When the oven is ready, pour 2 TBS of hot water into the saucer and place the loaves in the oven to bake for 25-30 minutes, or until they are golden and sound hollow when tapped. (See above for instructions on parbaking and reheating loaves). Cool completely. For a loaf that will be used in less than 24 hours, store wrapped in a flour sack towel, otherwise, store in an airtight container.

TIP: To reduce the chance of breakage, be sure to let the terra cotta saucer cool completely in the oven before removing it to store for the next time you make baguettes.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Tara,
    It's a great recipe!
    Don't you know that you can store and share your recipe with more than 13,000 foodies around the world?
    We have an online cookbook and community, and surely we're always looking for more creative recipes to add to our database.
    www.mycookbook.com

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  2. Tara, you certainly do have a refreshing blog! This is not a comment on the above commment. It's just a note to you. I live in a retirement home where three meals are supplied--not always with the healthiest ingredients. Pre-packaged stuff comes from a supplier. That's why your use of natural ingredients, the right soy flour, etc., appeals to what I would like to do if I was once again doing my own shopping and cooking/baking. I have to bring a dessert for about 18 folks to a Bible study next week, and I was searching for something simple to make in the small stove area that I do have access to. Normally I don't spend my money on ingredients, but I will for this. It was this project that led me to your site. You do a beautiful job of explaining. In one recipe for the recotta tart, you said "bake in a fairly cool oven." I have no idea what that means, but I decided to make something else. I recently read Julia Child's book on how she discovered French cooking. You would love that book. Julia was another person who adored cooking, especially when she was introduced to French cuisine when her husband took a job in Paris. He was a gourmet eater and she the gourmet cook. Nice combo! Keep up your excellent work!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for such a nice note. I hope you found something wonderful to make for your Bible study. I'm sorry it wasn't clear in the ricotta tart post what the oven temperature should be. I list the actual temperature (335F) in the recipe at the bottom of the page but not in the description of the process above (where I mention "a fairly cool oven"). Sorry about that. Take care and thanks for stopping by!

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