Back in the Spring of 2014, I spent some time working in a French pastry shop. The job was great— the owners, not so much. I learned so much there, from different baking techniques, to methods of cooking in batches, freezing, and being more sensible about the cooking and preparing process.
According to Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (as indicated pretty obviously from the title), bread is one of the things that is most economical, and most rewarding to make at home— trust me on this one. The very fact that I can buy 44lbs of flour for 14$ from a local whole sale store, rather than spending 6$ on 5lbs is a good indicator. And the process itself is so rewarding. The smells, the joys of the different textures and steps involved, the satisfaction of holding a golden, crackling, warm loaf of bread in your hands and thinking I made this. To do something so ancient and traditional, yet so easy— well, it's one of my favourite things. This recipe is from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, which I highly recommend if you're just starting out in the bread making business.
Although I don't believe in a foolproof recipe (because everything should be done au pif, or as testing as you go) this one is pretty darn easy to get the hang of, and even easier to make better as you go along. But for a first loaf of bread, it's fantastic.
- Kitchen scale
- Spoon/spatula/your hands
- Bench scraper/pastry cutting device, or a very sharp knife
- Bucket/large bowl/something foodsafe with a lid (I got like six of these nesting buckets at Loblaw for 7$, and this isn't even the biggest one.)
The recipe, halved, because who needs 6 baguettes at once? I guess if you wanted to make three long ones, that would work, but I have a tiny oven.
Weigh out all the dry ingredients together in your bucket. Give them a good swirl around, then add the warm water. The temperature will always affect the outcome of your bread, but generally, the weather is coldish here, and especially in the winter, I aim for warm over luke-warm. This is one of those things that come with repetition.
At first your dough will look like this. Creamy, and kind of gross. At this point, I recommend flouring your hands and mixing until all of the flour is moistened. It will be extremely sticky— this is good. You've created a "gluten cloak". Go with it.
When the dough looks like this and there aren't any crusty flour bits, you're good. No need to knead, at all. Just mix until even.
At this point, you'll want to cover the dough and leave it to rise for a while, covered. You can shape them as soon as they are done rising, after about two hours, but I prefer to let them gather better flavour by doing a slow rise in the fridge for a few days, before making the baguettes. It gives them that more complex baguetty flavour, rather than a white-bread-y flavour. If you're waiting (seriously, you should), put the bucket in the fridge after between 3-6 hours, 2-4 if it's really warm. Two is probably the minimum. Put a lid on your bucket thing, but not too tightly. Let it hang out in the fridge.
So, I made this dough on a Tuesday evening, and by thursday afternoon, it was good to go. I recommend two nights of waiting. It should look like this in the bucket. Very hole-y (which is why a clear plastic something is best— you can see what your bread is doing as it ferments a bit). Dust some flour on the top and dump it out onto a well-floured surface.
It'll look like this. Holey, floppy, sticky, and will hopefully smell a bit like beer— again, a good thing. That makes for a more complex tasting baguette.
If you want to make a boule, which is a large, round loaf, don't separate this into bunches, but instead move on to the shaping step. If you want baguettes, read on here.
Using your bench scraper or very sharp knife, portion this out into three equalish portions. You can weight them if you like, or eyeball it. With floured hands, you'll want to shape each lump into a round ball, pulling from the sides, and tucking underneath, then turning a quarter round and repeating until it's all tucked up and smooth on the top.
This video is a slightly different technique, but is a similar effect. It's great. After you shape them, being careful not to crush out the beautiful air pockets, let them sit, covered with a flour sack towel for about 30 minutes. You can preheat your oven shortly, if you like, to about 450, or even hotter if you can.
If you're making a boule, preheat the entire cast iron dutch oven, lid and all at 450. Be very careful when you take this out not to touch the lid. You will get a very serious burn. After it's preheated, place the boule on parchment paper, and place the parchment paper carefully into the preheated dutch oven. Cook for about 25 minutes lid on, then about 5-10 lid off to brown the crisp the crust, depending on how dark you like your bread. Let cool for at least an hour before cutting— I know. I know. It's nearly impossible to wait.
If you're making baguettes, wait until the resting period is over to preheat your oven. At this point, we're ready to shape the baguette!
I did the lazy way. I gently shaped the round into a very rounded sort of rectangle. Flip it upside down, and pull over one third, like an envelope, and press gently so it sticks. Pull over the other side, and do the same. If you want to taper the edges a bit, you can repeat this towards the end. If you like rounded edges, don't worry about that.
Using a soft, sort of swimming motion, roll out the baguette from the centre until it is the length you want. These are half-length baguettes, or mini baguettes, due to the restrictive nature of my oven. If the dough is very elastic, and fighting the rolling, let it rest for five to ten minutes so the gluten can relax, and come back at it.
Variation: For the rosemary baguette, which I made into the crostinis, fold in some dry or fresh rosemary at each of the shaping stages. It should end up fairly well dispersed throughout your baguette.
Place your baguettes on a piece of parchment paper, and while they rest for a few, preheat your oven to 450 or 475.
Just before they go in, you'll want to use a spray bottle to mist them with water— or use a pastry brush, and brush them very lightly. This allows the baguettes to have more oven spring before the crust sets. Finally you'll want to score your baguettes. This video is really instructive at getting the right shape to have those beautiful, open crescents. If you don't have a razor blade (doesn't everyone have these loose in their homes?) use a very, very sharp knife, but beware the results will vary a bit.
Alternatively, you could make your baguette into a beautiful epi— the beautiful, wheat shaped loaf which is perfect for pulling apart and dipping, or just eating. Watch out though, the ends are so sharp they can actually hurt you. People have gone to hospital. Epi literally means 'spike'. If you want to get really festive, you can then bend your cut epi into a circle, forming a festive harvest wreath.
Finally, and a very important step: place a tray (not glass) with a couple inches of water on the bottom rack of your oven. Commercial and home ovens do the opposite things: commercial keep moisture in (necessary for baking bread), home ovens leak moisture out. If you're making the boule in the dutch oven though, don't worry about it— that's what the dutch oven is for, to keep in the moisture generated by the bread baking.
These took about 20 minutes to bake, but you'll really just have to watch them. Darker is almost always better, but you'll want to look at the sides of the baguette to see if they're done— the top can be misleading. If they come out crackling, you'll know you've done a spot on job! Crackling is the sound of the crust contracting as it cools, and it's usually a good indicator of an excellent bread.
Again, let them cool for at least an hour before slicing— but really, who can resist? I usually rip off the end once it's cool enough to touch and slather butter and honey on it. I'm making myself hungry.
To make the crostini, you'll want either a plain or rosemary baguette— I made the rosemary specifically for the purpose. Once they're entirely cool, after about two hours, slice them on a slight diagonal to get a nice crust-holey inside ratio. Lay them out like cookies on a parchment paper, and preheat the oven to about 350. I brushed them with a mixture of olive oil, salt, and pepper, very lightly. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, but check them and prod them a bit to see if they've crisped up. You might need to flip them, but I was impatient, and I didn't.
And then eat them. On their own. Or with cheese. I've busted out the fabulous Boursin garlic and herb here. These would be good with a slice of prosciutto, too, or red pepper jelly and brie. Or really anything. They keep for a few days in a tightly sealed container.
Tip: Making crostini is a great way to use up older, staler bits of baguette, which tends to happen after about a day and a half. Hurray!
I love baguettes because they're so wonderfully versatile. Eat them plain, with butter, with cheese, with ham and swiss and mustard.
With pesto, and roasted tomatoes, and slices of roast chicken and Romano. Oh my god.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments below! Be sure to tell us what your favourite things to add to your crostini are, too. Enjoy!
*This recipe was original posted on my other blog, The House of Muses.