French Baguette – In honor of Michael

I think it’s clear that more often than not, the simplest of preparations, using the simplest of ingredients, can yield the very best food.  But, it’s not easy.  You need a deep understanding of each ingredient, how they work together, exactly what your final product should look and taste like, and the technical skills to achieve your goals.  Simple ingredients combined just right will also have enormous synergy.  Salad caprese is my favorite example.  By themselves, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and basil are all good ingredients, but nothing special.  Combine them just right, adding flaked sea salt, virgin olive oil and maybe a touch of balsamic, and look at the result!  Simple done right.

I think this philosophy can be found throughout all culinary disciplines.  Simple ice cream with real vanilla beans, top quality sushi, fresh baked French boules, Alaskan halibut seared with a touch of soy… simple, simple, simple.

Simple ingredients also implies the best ingredients, which gets us into market fresh, maybe organic, hormone free, in season, and so on.  If you want to make the best and serve the best, you need to buy the best.

I will reiterate: simple is not always easy.  Getting into today’s recipe, the king of French bread, the baguette, is also one of the simplest breads.  Flour, water, yeast and salt.  Four ordinary ingredients.  The rest is method and technique.  I will be honest and say, for a very long time, my bread was unacceptably bad.  I was unable to combine the simple ingredients and make magic.  I have since spent a great deal of time to learn French bread, and can confidently write this recipe.

I am going to re-post a previous post.  The bread recipe is the same.  The finishing and shaping are different.

Good bread is a complex thing.  Anyone can make average bread, but to develop that deep flavor, crunchy crust and soft elastic glutens takes a little practice. 


So let’s go through the three key essentials:

  • Deep flavor:  This is a product of fermentation, and the best way to do this is through the use of a pre-ferment (or starter dough) and letting the bread slowly rise, several times, before baking.  A pre-ferment is like a basic bread dough that is made the day before the actual dough.  

  • Crunchy crust:  This is the easy part.  Make sure the oven is HOT, and make sure you have some sort of moisture on the bread prior to baking.  Spraying the bread with a little water or using an egg wash are two techniques for accomplishing this.  And, of course, do not open the open excessively while the bread is baking.  Don’t let the heat escape.  

  • Elastic gluten (soft and chewy inside).  This is the tough part.  Initially working the dough until elastic is critical, as well as turning the dough several times before baking.  This is similar to punching the dough, except that instead of outright deflating the dough, you will fold it several times, reworking it and letting the dough gently reform its glutens.  

This recipe produces wonderful rolls stuffed with a sweet and tangy compound butter, but the dough itself is a lean dough, and can be shaped into baquettes, boules, French loafs, and so on.

French Baguette 


Prep time: 20 minutes
Inactive cook time: 1 day
Cook time: 1 hour
Yield: about 15-20 rolls

Ingredients:

Pre-ferment:

1 cup water
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp double acting yeast

Bread

3 cups bread flour
1 cup water, slightly warm to the touch
1 tbsp double acting yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 egg, beaten

Method:

Pre-ferment:

Mix all ingredients in a small mixing bowl, cover tightly, and let sit at room temperature over night.  

Bread:

You will need a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  In the bowl, add the flour, water, yeast, sugar and pre-ferment.  Turn the machine on low and work until barely mixed.   Turn machine off, wrap bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for 1/2 hour at room temp.  This allows the flour to absorb the water (salt will hinder this process and may kill the yeast, so it’s added later)  Add the salt, turn the machine on medium fast and work until glutens have formed (dough is pulling off the sides and has become stretchy and elastic).  If it is too dry, add water, 1 tbsp at a time (ambient humidity can affect this).  If too wet, add flour, 1 tbsp at a time.

Turn dough out into a lightly greased mixing bowl, cover tightly and let double in size in a moderately warm place.  This will probably take 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  ‘Turn the dough’ .  To turn the dough, place it on a lightly floured work surface, and fold it in half twice, always keeping the same side exposed to the air.  After turning, place the dough back in the mixing bowl and cover.  Turning the dough does two things:  slightly deflates the dough, works the dough creating better glutens, and allows more time for the dough to ferment, or develop, creating better flavor.

Turn the dough 3 times in total, once every half an hour.

Heat your oven to 450. 

Cut dough into 4 equal portions.  One at a time, and like a pizza, use your hands to work each piece into a rectangle.   Roll each rectangle into a rope, using the side of your hands to press the seal shut.  Gentle work each rope a little smaller and longer (you want the diameter in the middle to be about 1 1/2 inches, and the ends to taper).  This technique not only gives it the proper shape, but also traps gas within the bread, producing the correct ‘crumb structure’ or internal consistency. 
Cover with a damp paper towel and let proof until doubled in size.  Score the dough and spray with water (or use a pastry brush) until very wet.  Lightly sprinkle the top with flour (this adds a nice finishing touch).
 Place in oven and bake until deep golden brown and cooked through.  Let cool completely on a wire rack. This allows the steam to be re-absorbed by the bread, keeping it moist and developing the correct finishing texture.  Rewarm slightly before serving.

Enjoy.

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