It’s easy to be in love with an idea; it’s a lot harder to follow through on its execution.
I’ve been thinking about baking French bread for a long time now. The idea of pulling a crispy, golden baguette out of my oven appealed to my romantic bread-baker side, but it seemed so complicated. I was scared. I’m not very fond of failing, and I’d often rather not do something at all than to do it and get it wrong. I know, I know. That’s not very daring of me.
I’ve been putting off French bread for all sorts of reasons: I don’t have a spray bottle for misting the bread and making steam, I don’t have a fancy bread lame, I don’t have a canvas baking couche for proofing the bread. Oh, and I wasn’t really sure what proofing meant. And then there’s this:
We were lucky that our stove was included in our apartment, but not so lucky with the stove itself. It’s a million years old, with only one rack inside. The burners go out once a month, the broiler seldom works, and it runs at least 20 degrees cooler than it’s supposed to. It’s so poorly insulated that it just can’t hold its heat. This stove should be a recipe for failure.
So I was unreasonably thrilled when I found out that Julia Child’s French bread was my very first Daring Bakers challenge. If I failed, well, so be it. It wasn’t going to be my fault–I didn’t have the right supplies! As it turns out, Julia Child’s detailed instructions, combined with some anxiety and improvisation with equipment, gave us an amazing result. This was SO not a failure. What we had in the end was a bread with a moist, almost creamy crumb, with large holes; and a crisp, golden, crackling crust that sprang open beautifully where I slashed it before slipping it into the oven. The recipe made three baguettes slightly longer than 12 inches each.
I’m so happy (and pleasantly surprised!) with how this bread turned out, especially given the equipment I was working with. That’s the magic of Julia Child and 10-page-long instructions. The only thing I would do differently is to use better flour. With the intention of conquering my perfectionism, I decided to use the regular, not-special all purpose flour I had in the house. With three(!) rises, and so few ingredients (water, flour, yeast, salt), the flavour of the flour really develops, so it only makes sense to use the best you can get your hands on. I’ll do this next time. And yes, there will be a next time.
The Daring Bakers is a huge group, and there’s a lot of bread online today, so I won’t reprint the recipe. You can check it out here. What I’d like to offer you are some of the resources, materials, and techniques I used.
KNEADING: I’m always a pretty anxious cook, and I was especially so with this recipe. On the day of my baking, my nerves were eased when I discovered this video of Richard Bertinet demonstrating his kneading technique. This was perfect for the French bread dough. Ignore the ingredients he’s using and just focus on the super-cool kneading. My damp, sticky dough was transformed, but I didn’t need to use any extra flour, so the final product wasn’t even the slightest bit tough!
RISING: Here’s a trick my mother has used for years. I use my oven for the first rise, and in the case of this bread, the second rise too. I set my oven to the lowest temperature it runs at. I leave it there for two minutes, and then turn it off, turning on the oven light at the same time. This makes a nice cozy environment for the bread to grow in. Another trick is to put the covered bowl of dough on top of the fridge. It’s usually nice and warm up there too.
Another essential is patience. This dough required hours to rise to its full height. It had finally gone through its final rise and fully cooked 12 HOURS after I first pulled the flour off the shelf. Monitor the dough closely, but don’t skimp on time.
MAKING STEAM AND HEAT: Julia Child’s recipe recommends unglazed quarry tiles and a spray bottle to reproduce the heat and steam of a professional bread baking oven. Well, I didn’t have those, but I do have a pizza stone. I heated the oven hotter than the recommended temperature with the pizza stone inside. This heated the stone up nice and hot, so it would hold the heat that our crappy oven couldn’t. When I slid the baguettes onto the stone, we made steam by tossing a bit of water directly onto the bottom of the oven. The recipe recommends ice cubes, but I didn’t want to sacrifice any heat at all (precious, precious, heat), so we used hot water. We did it three times, about a minute between each steam bath. Carlo whipped open the oven door, I tossed the water from a cookie sheet directly onto the floor of the oven, and Carlo whipped the door closed again. Total time per steam bath: maybe 5 seconds. After all that, I finally reduced the oven heat to the recommended temperature.
NOT BEING AFRAID: Don’t be afraid!
You can see other Daring Bakers’ French bread by going to the Daring Bakers Blogroll.