You know: with giant bubbles and a crunchy-chewy crust.
You know: almost completely unlike the "French" bread you can buy in most grocery stores.
Exception: the organic baguette from Trader Joe's does a darn good job of approaching perfection.
This year, I decided to get serious about it. What I've learned so far: most recipes I've seen for it have ended up with something that just doesn't really resemble French bread. It's not so much the recipe, which is basic: flour, water, salt, yeast. It's all in the instructions.
I've been working from this recipe from a French women's magazine. Lookit me all reading French and stuff!
I'm on attempt number 7 or so and have about 20 minutes until I can tell you the result of this latest trial, so here's what I know so far:
1) Use flour with LESS gluten, not more. That means cake flour, not bread flour, which seems counter-intuitive, which is why it's taken me so long to crack this. Today's attempt is half Softasilk cake flour and half all-purpose unbleached. I've tried whole wheat pastry flour and will definitely start working it back into my mix once I have white bread down.
2) Get the actual French baguette loaf pans that look like gutters, but with a jillion holes. This upped my game considerably. I got mine at Amazon, but they have them all over the place, like Bed Bath and Beyond and JC Penney's and so on. Some recipes I've seen, they use pizza stones. Which is fine if you don't mind the bottom of your loaf being all flat, which shouldn't affect the flavor.
Right: so here's the recipe:
6 cups flour (low-ish gluten, finely ground)
2.5-ish cups warm water
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp yeast
That's it. It's basic. That's also a lot of bread. I have five people in my family and two of those are teen boys, so we tend to finish it up by the next day. Last time, I gave a loaf to a sick friend, so we ran out really quickly. If you don't have loads of people with hollow legs, make only half that and get a pan with only two gutters instead of the four I have.
Mix the water, flour, and salt until it forms a ball (I use a KitchenAid stand mixer with a dough hook, which takes less than a minute).
3) Just barely mix it. Get the ingredients stuck together and then leave it alone. No kneading. No leaving the mixer running. Just get the flour mostly wet and let it do its thing.
Cover it and let it sit there for half an hour or so. Mix the yeast with a bit of water, then mix it in, maybe adding a little more flour if you have to. I find that having the dough a bit on the sticky side ends up with better results than having it too dry.
(I'm still deciding if I need to wait this extra time or if putting the yeast in right away is fine)
Roll the ball in oil (I add a bit of oil to the mixing bowl and run it for a couple seconds, then roll the ball over once I've scraped it off the hook) and cover. Let rise in a warm, dry place for an hour or two. You want your yeast replicating and flourishing and a good store of "yeast farts" in there and the ball of dough at least doubled in size.
Turn out on floured surface (I use a cloth) and knead just enough so the oil is kneaded in. You'll lose quite a bit of the air, but I'm always happiest when some of the bubbles are still in there, unpopped. Add a bit more flour if it's still super sticky.
For my pan, which is a bit over a foot long and has four slots, I cut the dough into four equal pieces, then roll and stretch and dangle and roll them until I have four worms. (yum!) Lay them in the bread pan.
Another two big hints:
4) Sharp, sharp knife to cut the slashes in them. Cut fairly deep, like deeper than you think you want to. This lets some of the steam in the loaves escape. I have this scary bread knife that we bought last year online because I couldn't find an actual bread knife with sharp teeth for slicing loaves without crushing them. It's scary-sharp and I've cut myself a few times with it, but its razor-sharp teeth allow me to make deep, clean slashes. And my darling husband gave it to me the day after Valentine's Day. *Cue music from Psycho*
5) Hot, hot, hot and steam, steam, steam. Preheat to 450 degrees (which Google tells me is 232.2222 C). I put a jelly roll pan on the lowest rack and pour a cup of water into it while the oven heats, then add another cup when I put the bread in to bake. Today, I also brushed the tops with water.
I leave my bread pan sitting on top of the oven while it heats to give it a head start.
When it's hot, open the oven and get a face full of steam. Add another cup of water to the pan, then put the bread in and close the oven door, refusing to open it for any reason for the next 25 to 30 minutes.
And that's it.
|Today's loaves. Note the pan. Note the slashes. The ones on the left are upside down.|
|STILL not quite fluffy enough. The batch two days ago was a bit better with more all-purpose flour. But it also rose for longer. Hmmm...|
I'm still working on this. Maybe I need my oven hotter? I don't know how much hotter it goes and if it would explode or something. And maybe even more cake flour and less all-purpose? And like I mentioned above, I'd like to get some whole wheat flour into this.
I'm still trying to get it exactly right. And taking suggestions.
While you're waiting for your bread pan to be delivered, you can read about really old-time French people. Because I can't NOT tell you to buy my books.