Do You Really Want to Make French Bread?

I have been asked by someone who stumbled on my most recent blog, To Knead Or Not To Knead, if I would give more specific details about the French bread I make—in other words, a real recipe. That’s not easy with this kind of bread because there are a number of variables, from the climate to the water content of the flour. I am always experimenting, trying to make my loaves just a little better each time. My friend Jason Epstein, whose book Eating we just published this fall, would understand. He claims that he never makes something the same way twice, that he is always improving on it, so why write it down in a rigid formula? He prefers to treat a recipe as a conversation over the stove with a friend.

So I am going to follow Jason’s lead here and ask you just to join me as I describe how I made my baguettes this past weekend. It was a gray, cold day that I baked them, spreading the warmth of the kitchen and the heavenly smell of bread baking throughout the apartment.

First, you’ll need to check your EQUIPMENT. Unless you happen to have a wood-burning oven, you’ll need a baking stone measuring at least 14 x 15 inches that you set on the middle rack of your oven. You’ll also need something to create steam. The simplest method is to squirt some water over the loaves before they go into the hot oven and to toss of few ice cubes onto the oven floor just before you shut the door. I heat up an old flat iron, as described in my last blog entry, picking it up with sturdy tongs and plunging it into a pan of water.

For INGREDIENTS you’ll need 3 3/4 cups or more of white flour. (You can use bread flour, if you have it, but I find Hecker’s or King Arthur’s unbleached, all-purpose flour is excellent); 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (I use rapid-rise these days); 2 teaspoons kosher salt; and 3/4 cup tap water.

The night before I planned to bake I mixed 2 1/2 cups of the flour, the 1/4 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and all of the water together in the bowl of my standing electric mixer, using the dough hook. You can do the mixing with a big wooden spoon but not your hands—at this stage it’s just too wet and sticky. When the dough is mixed it will still be loose and gloppy but that’s okay; cover the bowl in plastic wrap and drape a towel over it. I’ll give it about 18 hours to do its work, sitting in my kitchen where the temperature is around 60 to 65 degrees at night and 70 during the day;

Two hours before I’m ready to bake I add 1/2 cup more flour and the remaining teaspoon of salt and let the dough hook mix it again. If the dough still looks too soupy, I sprinkle in another 1/2 cup with the dough hook turning slowly. Now I flour my work surface generously (mine is a marble-topped worktable) and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto it, sprinkling more flour on top. Very gently at first I start to knead, using a dough scraper to prevent sticking and folding the dough over onto itself. This is such a delicate, moist dough that I have learned not to push down too hard but to coax the dough gently with the palms of my hands, adding more flour as necessary.

Gradually the dough becomes cohesive, then smooth, and it bounces back at me when I stick a finger into it. The kneading seems to take me about 6 or 7 minutes.

NOTE: I often want to make myself a small pizza*—cook’s treat—so at this stage I will tear off a piece of dough between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and set it aside, loosely covered with plastic wrap, or I refrigerate it if I’m not using it right away.

To return to the bread dough, I now wash out the bowl and put the dough back in it, letting it rise, covered again, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. Because this bread has less leavening, rising times are slower, which adds flavor to the bread.

Now comes the famous forming of the loaves à la Madame Child. I scrape the dough out of the bowl again onto the floured marble, punch it down gently, and divide it into thirds. I take one third of the dough (leaving the other 2 covered with a towel) and pat it into an oval shape 6 or 7 inches long.

Then I fold the long sides toward the middle, overlapping, and with the side of my hand I press the dough to form a lengthwise trough down the middle. I bring the two long sides up and over the trough and firmly pinch the sides together. Flouring the work surface again, I roll out the dough with the palms of my hands, starting at the center and rolling toward the ends, stretching the dough as I roll it to about 12 inches (or slightly less if I’ve stolen a piece for my pizza).

Now I quickly pick up that first rope of dough, which droops a bit as I transfer it to a kitchen towel that I have laid out, well dusted with flour. After arranging the loaf on the long end of the towel, I make a generous pleat in the towel to keep the first baguette separated from the next one. And now I prepare the remaining pieces of dough in the same way and lay another towel on top.

While the baguettes get their final 30-minute rise , I preheat the oven to 475 degrees with the baking stone on the middle rack. I also heat up my trusty old iron over a gas flame.

The last moment of excitement is at hand. The baguettes have doubled. I take my improvised baking paddle, well dusted at one long end with corn meal, and slip it just a little way under the first baguette; then using the far side of the towel I flip it onto the paddle, seam side down now, and make 3 lengthwise slashes on top with a razor blade held at an angle. I pull out the oven rack and I position the paddle at the far end of the stone, then jerk it so the baguette slips off the paddle and onto the hot surface. I very quickly repeat this maneuver with the two remaining loaves, shutting the oven door in between to keep the heat in. Now I put a pan of water on the oven floor and with my tongs grab the hot iron and plop it into the pan.

The baguettes are done in about 25 minutes, although I always peek 5 minutes sooner to see if they have turned golden brown. When ready I remove the baguettes with tongs and prop them up so the air can circulate as they cool.

Voilà. Try not to eat them until they’ve had at least half an hour to settle.

*To make yourself a small pizza for lunch: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Flatten your reserved hunk of dough on a well-floured work surface and roll it out to a circle about 6 inches in diameter. Paint the top lightly with olive oil and fill the round with whatever appeals to you. I love eggplant so I grill some fairly thin, lengthwise slices of a small eggplant, brushed with oil, over a gas burner, until lightly roasted. Then I arrang 3 of those slices on top of the circle of dough, interspersed with 6 or 7 cherry tomatoes and topped with a heaping tablespoon of grated parmesan. Using the same jerking motion that I described for sliding the baguette onto the hot baking stone and with the help of a spatula, I slip the pizza into the oven, but if that unnerves you and you feel all the topping will tumble off, bake the pizza for the first 5 minutes on a regular baking sheet and then slide it onto the baking stone when the bottom has firmed up. Bake a total of 12 to 15 minutes, checking to see if the dough is crispy and the filling bubbly.

The possibilities for pizza fillings are endless. See what scraps you may have in your fridge—cooked vegetables, a little sausage or ham, different cheeses, olives, peppers.

TO KNEAD OR NOT TO KNEAD?

Why do we make bread at home, particularly these days when there is so much good bread to be found in our local bakeries? Certainly most of us don’t have a brick oven or a way of creating the steam that is necessary to achieving a great crust, so our efforts can’t be as good as a professional baker’s. I’m talking about crusty loaves—boules, baguettes, ficelles, and hard rolls, which fifty years ago you could hardly find anywhere, even in New York City.

That was about the time that Julia was working on the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as we were poring over the final selection of recipes for it, I mentioned that it was a shame that Americans, who at last were mastering French cooking, thanks to Julia, still couldn’t enjoy that essential element of a French meal: an excellent, hard-crusted, golden brown loaf that when broken open revealed a patchwork of holes with shiny interiors and tasted simply of good bread. Nothing was better suited to mop up the last delicious morsels on your plate and a French dinner just wasn’t the same without it. The only solution, I slyly suggested, was for Mastering II to reveal the secrets and give the American cook a recipe that would work.

My idea caught fire. As Julia put it in the introduction to the book, “Until our editor, in her gentle but compelling way, suggested that we really owed it to our readers to include a recipe for French bread, we had no plans at all to tackle it. Two years and some 284 pounds of flour later, we had tried out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find”—and they still hadn’t come up with the real thing. Julia put her husband, Paul, to work on it at first because he had made bread in college, but after 60 loaves (a few of which he mailed to me in New York and they all looked like the twisted arms of an old olive tree) he gave up. So they packed up American flour and American yeast and salt, and set off for France where they made contact with Professor Calvel of the Ecole de Meunière in Paris. And then, as she wrote: “It was like the sun in all its glory suddenly breaking through the shades of gloom.” This epiphany was particularly acute because what they learned seemed to defy most of the tenets of bread making they had previously encountered: Calvel’s dough was supposed to be soft and sticky, almost too tacky to be handled, and it was left to rise in a cool spot, not warm, for many hours. The proper shaping of the loaves was a crucial factor, as Julia wrote me in a postcard from Paris, not mentioning that they still had to find a way to simulate the baker’s wood-burning oven and to come up with a device to get that whoosh of steam so essential to the crusting of the loaves. But Paul worked out those technicalities (they were always a great team) and soon Julia was ready with a 20-page recipe for Plain French Bread.

Needless to say, I became addicted to making my own baguettes at home. Initially I used an asbestos plate, as recommended by Paul, as a substitute for the hot floor of a French oven, but after asbestos was condemned I lined my oven shelf with tiles. I also found an old, pre-electric iron that was perfect for heating up on my gas flame on top of the stove. When it had turned red hot and after I’d coaxed the long loaves onto the oven tiles with the help of an improvised baker’s paddle, I would pick up the hot iron with tongs, plop it quickly into a pan of water on the oven floor, and slam the oven door shut. You could hear the whoosh of steam inside. If there were children around, they always seemed relieved once I had performed this feat, and soon they were eager to get into the act.

I have long believed that if you want children to be interested in cooking, start making yeast breads together. They feel something so magical as the dough changes from a sticky mess under their hands to a smooth and bouncy mass that holds together. And it’s all in the kneading. Then they put the dough back in its bowl, cover it, and let it take a rest. When they return some time later and remove the covering, the dough has doubled or tripled in volume, usually trembling at the brim of the bowl. Now comes the part they love best: punching the dough ruthlessly down again. They also love the shaping and are always surprised at how when it comes out of the oven its shape has changed. It has a mind of its own.

So I confess to having an ambivalent feeling when I read in the fall of 2006 that Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan had come up with a miraculous way of making the perfect, authentic country loaf that was going to revolutionize bread making. The attraction for home cooks was that is was easy, required no kneading, and that it was baked in a heavy, very hot Le Creuset-like cooking pot which gave it a great crust and those holes that are the pride of every baker. All it took was time—most of it waiting time—and the ability to handle very wet dough, which didn’t need kneading. Mark Bittman writing in the food section of The New York Times thought the results fantastic and Jeffrey Steingarten, an exacting cook, thought it the best country loaf he had ever made (after a little tinkering, of course) and wrote it up for Vogue.

I tried it a couple of times and was delighted with the taste and the texture of the round country loaf, although some of the holes seemed excessive in size so if slices were used for a sandwich bits of the filling might drop out. Recently I tried again, this time experimenting to see if I dropped a fairly long portion of the moist dough into a foot-long Le Creuset pan I had for making pate, I would get something that resembled a baguette. It was pretty good, but it didn’t really look like a baguette, with its handsome slashes, but like one of Paul’s olive tree branches, only plumper.

The truth is I missed the kneading. For me a good deal of the pleasure of making bread is tactile—kneading the dough gently at first so that it doesn’t stick to my work surface, scraping it off the board, flouring, folding, and continuing to knead rhythmically until my hands tell me it is ready. The dough gradually loses its tackiness and its resistance and comes alive under my palms, springing back at me when I press my thumb into it to see if it has been kneaded enough. My step-daughter tells me I become like a little girl I am enjoying it so much. And Julia used to say that hand-beating and kneading were good for our upper arm muscles. But this tactile sense also tells me when I have added enough flour and when the dough is just cohesive enough to roll out into the baguette shape. After it has had its final rise, then comes the slashing of the loaf, a procedure that takes some practice to master. With the revolutionary no-knead method, on the other hand, the dough is so moist that all you can do is just plop it into the hot pot and slap on the lid.

My objection is not entirely sentimental. Flours vary in their water content, making it hard to rely on precise measurements. Recently I botched a batch because the dough was too wet when it went into the pan, and although it crusted well, the interior remained damp. Had I been handling the dough, I would have known this and worked in considerably more flour.

But I did absorb a valuable lesson: You achieve a better-tasting bread if you use less yeast and allow the dough a long, slow rise. So now I’m playing with these findings and making a better baguette. But I haven’t stopped kneading.

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