Monday, November 3, 2008

French Bread (Baguettes)

Hope everyone had a great Halloween. To counter all that candy and chocolate, here's another bread recipe that I made this weekend. It's a simple French Bread recipe from Betsy Oppenneer's The Bread Book. Oppenneer called it French "style" because authentic French bread is made from French-milled flour that creates a lighter loaf. Whatever because these are light enough for me.

See all those holes? Pretty light. And the crust was just crusty enough but not as thick or hard on a tooth like rustic breads can be. Using a steam pan really does the trick to develop a beautiful crust and easy enough for a beginner home baker like me.

I made 4 loaves of baguettes on Saturday and there's only a half loaf left this morning. We had them plain with butter, toasted with butter, for breakfast with over easy eggs, toasted with Chopped Liver, toasted and grounded to make bread crumbs for meatloaf, and toasted for leftover meatloaf sandwiches. Mmm-mmm-mmm.

As with most basic yeast bread recipes, this one took time, a little more time than some. This particular recipe used cool water and longer than usual rising time to build more flavor and the airy texture that a good french loaf should have.

You might think 4 loaves is a lot but these are smaller than those you find at stores, only about 14" long each. But they keep well wrapped up and retoasts nicely.

I used a baguette pan for 3 of the loaves (because it only holds 3 loaves) and then 1 on a baking sheet. To my surprise, the one on the baking sheet crusted up better than the baguette pan's. The top crusts were pretty much the same, but it was the bottom crusts where the difference was. The pan produced almost a par-baked bottom. I think the reason is because the bottom of the pan is perforated and sat right above the steam pan. I ended up rebaking the loaves upside down for another 10 minutes on the baking sheet and it crisped up nicely. Kind of like the par-baked breads from the store, except that the loaves were completed cooked through and are much lighter and airy. And IMHO, much better tasting. Now I'm completely spoiled.

The other difference in using the baguette pan was that the loaves proofed into very nice rounder loaves, like what store bought baguettes looked. I liked the looks of the loaves but tastes were the same as the one baked on the baking sheet.

I think the next time I make these (and I will soon), I'll still use the baguette pan but will also add my pizza stone on the bottom to see if that helps with the bottom crust. I also think I will try preheating the oven at 450 degrees F instead of the recipe's 425 degrees. From everything that I've read, a higher temperature when first inserting the loaves is key to rise and crust formation.
I decided to use the stand mixer to do the initial mixing since that is much easier on the arm. I sort of followed Oppenneer's recommendations and I think I finally have it figured out. The recipe below is for initial mixing with a stand mixer. If you want to do this manually, you might want to read what I did with the basic white bread recipe.

1 package (1/4 oz) or 1 scant Tbsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105-115 degrees F)
2 cups cool water (45-55 degrees F)
5 1/2 - 6 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
Cornmeal (if using baguette loaf pan)

Using a large bowl (or stand mixer bowl), soften the yeast in the warm water.

Add salt to bowl. Use the paddle attachment for this step (NOT the dough hook). On medium speed (#4), add 3 1/2 cups of the flour, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup at a time to prevent flour from getting everywhere. After the flour is incorporated, beat for 2 minutes. The dough will still be fairly sticky at this point but it's ready for kneading.

On a well-floured work surface, turn out the dough, using a dough scraper if needed. Flour your hands and the dough surface really well and start kneading. Add a little bit of flour as needed to prevent sticking, for 8 to 10 minutes. I ended up adding almost another cup of flour but how much will depend on each particular situation.

Use a dough scraper to scrape the dough if it sticks. The dough is ready when it's smooth, elastic, and you see blisters (small bubbles beneath the surface) on the surface.

Put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn to coat the entire ball. Cover with a tightly woven kitchen towel or cover with plastic. Let rise in a cool place (about 60 degrees F) for about 3 hours or until triple in size. Since the house was on the comfortable side (about 73 degrees) that morning, I had to find a place where it was a bit cooler, I chose a spot on the floor tile, in the corner of the living room.

I checked on it after an hour and it seems to be rising a little bit faster than it suppose to. So I put the bowl on the top shelf of the refrigerator for 30 minutes to slow things down a bit. I then placed the bowl back in the corner on the tile floor for another hour. By then, it looked like it was ready to flow out of the bowl so I put the bowl back into the fridge for the remaining 30 minutes.
Prepare the baguette pans by oiling and sprinkling with corn meal. If using a baking sheet, oil the baking sheet, no corn meal.

Turn the dough out on a lightly oiled work surface. Divide the dough into quarters. Roll out each piece into an 8 x 10 oval and then fold it lengthwise in thirds. Flour the rolling pin to prevent sticking. Use the side of your hand to make a lengthwise crease down the center. Fold it in half and pinch the seams closed. Make sure you pinch the seams hard enough to keep it closed. Taper the ends a bit. This and the folding will help develop the skin on the dough that is crucial for good final crust formation.

Starting in the middle, use flat palms to gently roll the dough back and forth to form a even 14" cylinder. Try to make the cylinder about the same thickness its entire length. But if it's a bit off, don't worry about it. Close is good enough.

Repeat this with the remaining 3 pieces of dough. Put the loaves seam side down on the prepared pan or baking sheet. Cover with a towel and let rise at room temperature for 40 minutes.

While the loaves are in their final proofing, preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place a shallow pan on the lower shelf of the oven. I used the bottom of an old roasting pan.

Shortly before baking, make diagonal slashes in the loaves, about 2" apart and about 1/4" deep. I like my slashes to be just a bit deeper, about 1/2". I think it's prettier that way. Use a sharp serrated knife.

Lightly (very lightly) brush the top of the loaves with cold water and let sit uncovered for 5 minutes. Brush with cold water again just before putting into the oven.

Heat up 2 cups of water, doesn't need to be boiling, just hot.

Place the loaves into the oven. Carefully and gently (but quickly) pour the hot water into the preheated pan on the bottom shelf (see warning below about steam). Be careful of the hot steam, keep your head back. Close the oven door immediately to trap the steam. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until they pull slightly from the pan and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
The internal temperature should be 200 degrees F.

Remove from pans immediately and cool on racks.

WARNING: I have read on a couple of bread sites that some home ovens have problems when using the steam method. Apparently some of the newer electric ovens are shutting off due to the extra steam. So please read your owner manuals and/or contact your oven manufacturer if you have any doubts before trying this or voiding your warranty. I have a very old basic oven with no electronic brain to screw up and found no ill-effect of the steam.

That's it. If this is too many loaves for you to eat, share it with friends and family. Receiving home baked items made with care and love is one of the nicest things in the world, IMO. Now go and eat well.

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