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french baguettes

October 14, 2010

At the top of my list of Things I Like to Make Difficult is bread. I basically make a batch whenever I have a day off with nothing else to do (or, more accurately, nothing else that I want to do), and there are a few things I’ve learned.

First, bread tastes sooo much better if there’s an overnight rise involved. The flavor just gets deeper and earthier and nuttier and ughhh excuse me while I go raid the flour jar to satisfy my carb craving. I might be going crazy, but I swear that whenever I try a one-day recipe now, it just tastes more metallic and not as good.

Second, I am a failure at making breads with an open crumb. Every single time, I handle the proofed dough too roughly (a.k.a. I handle it, period) or don’t let the dough rise long enough or use instant yeast where the recipe calls for active dry so that the loaf spreads outwards in the oven instead of up. I mean, I still think it turns out tasty, but it never has those pretty open bubbles in the middle.

This time around, though, I swear I saw a couple bubbles. I’m sure it didn’t help that one of the cats walked all over one of the loaves after I took them out of the fridge (I guess that’s what I get for putting them on the floor so they could warm up faster in a patch of sun…), but the one that wasn’t deformed by evil cat paws actually turned out pretty well.

Also, the crust was really nice on this one, all crackly and bubbly and yummm.

And as an added bonus, I think this was the easiest non-enriched (a.k.a. lacking butter or oil—at least, that’s what I’m saying non-enriched means…) dough I’ve ever worked with. Which is really saying something, considering that most of the time, I don’t even handle the dough and rely entirely on my mom’s KitchenAid to do the dirty work.

But this time around, the recipe called for using your hands, and like Annie says on her blog, it was actually really fun and satisfying. Usually, when I try to knead dough with my hands, I don’t get anywhere near the pretty, perfect mounds of dough pictured in cookbooks and cooking shows and all that. Instead, I end up with gluey, sticky hands and one shaggy mess of a dough ball. Somehow, though, that didn’t happen with this one. I mean, my hands were still blech-looking, but the dough was pretty nice-looking—and since I don’t take pictures of my hands, the dough is all that matters. So there. Wins all around! If you’re in the market for something that takes forever and a day to make but involves very little actual work and ends in something tasty, this is it.

P.S. This involves a lot of timing coordination—as Annie says, I would start it in the morning, like between 8 and 10, unless you want to be up in the middle of the night kneading. Fun!

French Baguettes
1/8 teaspoon instant (rapid-rise) yeast
3/4 cup warm water
6 oz. (1 cup plus 3 tablespoons) lower protein all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury [I used King Arthur for the sponge and Gold Medal for the dough because we ran out and I was too cheap to buy the good stuff…I’m really not convinced it made a huge difference, though.]
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1/2 cup water, divided, plus 2 teaspoons additional water if needed
10 oz. (2 cups) lower protein all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt [I used a scant teaspoon, because two of the last bread recipes I tried from Cook’s Illustrated—where this recipe is originally from—ended up tasting really salty to me. However, I think this one could’ve actually used more salt than I used, so I think the full teaspoon would be fine.]
1 large egg white
1 tablespoon water

1. To make the sponge, combine the yeast, warm water, and flour in a medium bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until thick and smooth. Scrape down the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and cut a couple of small holes in the plastic wrap with a paring knife. Let stand at room temperature. After 4-5 hours, the sponge should be doubled in size and have tiny bubbles on the surface. Continue to let stand at room temperature until the surface shows a slight depression in the center, about 2-3 hours longer. [Never happened for Annie, and never happened for me, either. Also, if your kitchen’s cold like mine, you can turn the oven on to 200 degrees, turn it off, wait 10 minutes, and stick the dough in there so it’ll rise more quickly.]
2. To make the dough, add the yeast and 6 tablespoons of the water to the sponge. Stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the water is incorporated. Stir in the flour and continue mixing with the wooden spoon until a scrappy ball forms. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead by hand, adding drops of water as needed, until the dry bits are absorbed into the dough, about 2 minutes. Stretch the dough into an 8-by-6-inch rectangle. Make indentations in the surface of the dough with your fingertips; sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the water. Fold the edges of the dough up toward the center and pinch to seal in the water. Knead lightly, about 30 seconds (the dough will feel slippery). Begin crashing the dough by flinging it against the work surface several times. (This helps the dough absorb the water.) Continue to knead and crash the dough alternately until it is soft and supple, and the surface is almost powdery smooth [a.k.a. matte], about 7 minutes.
3. Again, stretch the dough into an 8-by-6-inch rectangle and make indentations with your fingertips. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of water and the salt. Fold and seal the edges once again and knead and crash as before, about 7 minutes, until the dough feels smooth and powdery. If the dough still feels tough, knead in the additional 2 teaspoons of water.
4. Stretch a small piece of dough out thin (the windowpane test). If the dough does not tear and you can see light through the dough, it is adequately kneaded. (If the dough tears, knead a bit more and test again.) Form the dough into a ball, transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 30 minutes. Remove the dough, knead gently to deflate for about 10 seconds. Return to the bowl, replace the plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 90 minutes.
5. Gently punch down the dough in the bowl and turn it out onto a work surface. Divide the dough into two 12-oz. pieces. Working with one piece at a time and keeping the second piece covered, drag the dough to the edge of the work surface, forming the dough into a rough torpedo shape about 6 1/2 inches long. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Drape the dough pieces with plastic wrap and let rest 20 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, cover an inverted baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one piece of dough at a time and keeping the other covered, shape the dough. Make an indentation along the length of the dough with an outstretched hand. Press the thumb of one hand along the indentation while pulling the upper edge of the dough down over the hand to enclose the thumb. Repeat this process along the length of the dough. Press the seam with your fingertips to seal closed. Roll the cylinder of dough seam-side down, rolling and stretching until it measures 15 inches long by 2 1/2 inches wide. Place seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Shape the spaced dough pieces 6 inches apart on the baking sheet. Drape with a clean, dry kitchen towel and cover the sheet loosely with plastic wrap (or seal in a very large plastic bag) [I went with just plastic wrap…kitchen towels weird me out.]. Refrigerate until the dough has risen moderately, 12-16 hours (no longer).
7. To bake the bread, place one oven rack in the lower-middle position with a baking stone [or an overturned rimmed baking sheet, if you’re too cheap to buy something that weighs 800 pounds and only gets used every once in a while] on the rack. Adjust the other to the lowest position and place a small empty metal baking pan on it. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the baking sheet with the baguettes and let stand covered at room temperature for 45 minutes. [Make sure you watch for rogue pets.] Remove the plastic wrap and towel and let stand an additional 15 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 1 cup of water to simmer in a small saucepan on the stovetop [or just use the hottest tap water possible]. Make the glaze by beating the egg white and water together.
8. With a single-edge razor blade or very sharp knife, make five 1/4-inch-deep diagonal slashes on each baguette. Brush with the glaze and mist with water in a spray bottle. Bring the baking stone [or pan] out of the oven and line up the edge with that of the baking sheet. Quickly slide the parchment paper with the baguettes off the baking sheet and onto the hot baking stone. Pour the simmering [or just really hot] water into the baking pan on the bottom oven rack (be careful to avoid the steam!). Bake, rotating the baking stone after 10 minutes, until the surface is a deep golden and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 205-210 degrees, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a wire rack and cool 30 minutes.

Source: Annie’s Eats

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