The Baguette

Baguette Recipe
Fruit of my labors, perfect for crostini or any snacking.

I started cooking bread with a wonderful book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Zoe Francois. I tried several recipes. Each time amazed that I was making bread, that it had a custardy crumb and lovely crust. I made dozens of freeform loaves, mostly boules, served with homemade honey butter (you literally mix honey and a bit of salt into softened butter) and thought myself very accomplished.

Then last year, something changed. I wanted different breads. While the loaves I was making were delicious, they were dense, without the lightness and airiness of breads I had had in the past, and without the complexity of the best breads I had tasted. It was time for french bread, more specifically, a good baguette.

So I turned to Julia Child. Read through her recipe for French bread and about a million others, trying to decide exactly what I wanted to do.

My first attempt is straight out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It took a few days and turned out decent bread, although I struggled with getting the loaves onto my bread stone without deflating or disfiguring them.

I was in the neighborhood, but not yet at the perfect flavor and texture. Imagine my delight when I picked up The Breadbaker's Apprentice. Not only does Peter Rheinhart explain what is actually happening when you make bread (and therefore how to change your desired results), his recipes are well written with step by step instructions and tips. I tried his French bread too, but by this time was getting bummed. It felt like a major ordeal making his loaves when all I wanted was a simple tasty baguette. I am aware that bread fiends will be very angry at me for saying there should be a simpler baguette. I understand the process and why it takes so long, but for everyday bread, a traditional baguette requires a time investment I'm just not ready to make. No wonder the Parisians buy theirs daily.

Then I got to page 190 and my life changed. Here was the baguette recipe, Pain à l'Ancienne, that has now become my standard baguette - and it is so easy! Reinhart's recipe is flawless, but makes more loaves than I can consume, and requires pretty deft handling so as not to degas the loaves (you want those beautiful air bubbles.) So I've halved it and included my little shortcuts. 

Pain à l'Ancienne
Adapted from Peter Rheinhart's The Breadbaker's Apprentice

3 cups (27 ounces) unbleached bread flour
1 1/8 tsp (.28 ounce) salt
1 tsp (.1 ounce) instant yeast
1 1/8 cups to 1 1/2 cups (9.5 to 12 ounces) ice cold water*
neutral oil
semolina flour for dusting

*I fill my measuring cup with the required water, add ice, let it sit, and when I'm ready for it, re-measure the water now that I know it is ice cold - it's a tip Peter gives in the book.

Put the flour, salt, yeast, and 1 1/8 cups of ice water in the bowl of your stand mixer. Use the paddle and mix on low for 2 minutes. Switch to the dough hook and mix 5-6 minutes at medium speed. It should be sticky on the bottom but release from the sides of the mixer bowl. If not, sprinkle in flour (if it's too wet) or water (if it's too dry) a little at a time until it gets there. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough into the bowl (a spatula or dough scraper dipped in water makes this a little easier.) Mist the top of the dough with oil, cover the whole thing with plastic wrap and put the bowl in the fridge to work its magic overnight.

When you check it the next day, it should have risen a little, but not yet doubled in size (which is your next goal.) Leave the bowl out at room temperature for 2-3 hours (longer if needed) to let the dough wake up, lose it's chill, and continue fermenting. You want to get the dough to doubled from its original size.

When it's doubled, liberally spread bread flour on your work surface and transfer the dough (be gentle so you don't degas it too much). Put flour on top and on your hands so you don't stick, then roll the dough gently to about 8 inches long. Using a pastry scraper or knife dipped in water, cut into three long strips. Make sure you don't saw back and forth, but cut straight down, like a pincer.

Now, from here, Rheinhart explains how to get your oven ready, how to shape your baguettes, how to move them, etc. This is where I pull out my secret weapon....

I use the pan on the left for baguettes, the one on the right for batards.
This bread pan is awesome. You just lay your three strips in the three indentations, and let the dough get a final rest and rise, and when it's time to bake, place the pan with dough right on your bread stone. This makes transport easier, not to mention keeping you from degassing the dough as you move it back and forth. You can cut slits in the top if you like using a razor, sharp knife, or scissors.

So now that your dough is resting in the pan, preheat your oven (with bread stone) to 500 F (550 is even better if your oven can do it). Also, have a steam pan ready on the rack under your bread stone.. (I use the bottom of my broiler pan). You want your oven really ready, so I'd suggest waiting to bake at least 30 minutes after your oven comes to temp.  Have a spray bottle filled with water next to you, as well as 1 cup of hot water. You'll need them to create steam during the baking process.

When you are ready to bake, place the pan with your dough right on the bread stone, pour the cup of warm water in the steam pan, then close the door. Be careful not to get water on the bread or burn yourself, that water will immediately start to steam when it hits the steam pan. After 30 seconds, spray the walls of the oven (avoid hitting anything glass like a thermometer or your oven light, not to mention the bread itself) with water and close the door again. Repeat twice more at 30 second intervals. After the final spray, lower the oven temp to 475F and continue baking.

After 8 or 9 minutes, the baguettes should begin turning golden brown. If they are baking unevenly, you can rotate the pan. Continue baking 10 to 15 minutes more, until the bread is rich, golden brown and the internal temp is at least 205F.

Transfer the bread to a cooling rack. They should feel light, almost airy, and will cool in about 20 minutes. Then there is nothing left but to slice and enjoy.

The Revelation - Pain à l'Ancienne