When it comes to simple pleasures in life, an absolute favorite of mine is a fresh, homemade bread, particularly a baguette. The anticipation that builds as I watch the bread rise and then proof. The smell that permeates the house as it bakes. The simultaneous crunch of the crust and the softness of the interior. Just describing it makes me want one.
I recalled making them during culinary school and that the ingredient list was simply flour, yeast, salt and water, and was, therefore, determined to make them again. Yet I found within myself a little fear and trepidation about making bread. Dough can be temperamental. What if I forget about the bread and it over-rises? What if I don’t mix the dough just right to develop the gluten? What if I don’t get that perfect amount of water so that the dough is just perfect? Making dough can be a very laborious process.
In How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (a book I would strongly recommend), he dispels a lot of the fears and anxiety involved in making bread and makes it almost ridiculously simple. He swears that a 10-year-old can make very good dough on the first try following his instructions (p. 852).
Here is Mark Bittman’s recipe:
- 3 ½ cups AP Flour (if you have bread flour, even better)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 ½ teaspoon instant yeast
- 1 cup, give or take, warm water
He suggests making the dough in a food processer, which I have found to be a great way. The machine does the kneading for you, which is a big plus because a good dough should be almost too sticky to work with. Because the machine is running at a high speed, adding the water and the mixing takes place really quick, actually within 30 seconds. I actually like to knead my dough a few times. I have found that there is something very therapeutic about kneading. (I also have a KitchenAid stand mixer, but have yet to try making the dough in there. I will let you know how it turns out when and if I do.)
In terms of letting the dough rise, Mark Bittman says, “Within limits, slower rising is better; it allows flavor to develop and improves the final product in subtle but noticeable ways” (p. 855). Usually what I will do is make the dough in the morning, let it rise for 3 hours or so, shape it, and then let it rise for three more hours. During those three hours, I do whatever else I need to do. He also suggests that you can make the dough the night before and let it rise in the refrigerator over night (bring the dough back up to room temperature before shaping). You can do the same after you shape it as well. Using Mark Bittman’s advice, I don’t let the bread dictate my schedule; I make the bread according to my schedule.
To shape the baguette, I roll the dough to the length of my baking sheets and then tightly roll the dough. Mark Bittman says that this is the trickiest method of shaping and I would somewhat agree. The hardest part is making sure it is tight and that it will not unwind during baking. Mark’s recipe yields two 12 inch long baguettes.
Right before baking, I will slash the dough. The idea behind slashing is that it allows some of the excess steam to evaporate from the dough. Also, it gives you a more beautiful traditional baguette (if you want to be super traditional, a baguette has five slashes on it). I will also brush the dough with a little water.
For baking, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F for a good 45 minutes. At the bottom of the oven, put a cast iron pan filled with garden rocks. Right before baking, fill the cast iron with boiling water. (Please be careful in doing this as a lot of steam will be created and steam burns hurt really bad.) The steam created helps create a better crust on the bread. I don’t fully understand the process and the chemistry involved (I am sure Alton Brown could explain it to me). From what I gathered, steam delays the formation of the crust so that the bread can expand fully, thereby yielding a crust that it is thin and crisp, which is what is most desired. Some suggest just using steam for the first 10 minutes or so of baking as too much steam prevents the browning of the crust. What I have found to work really well is baking the dough for its full allotment of time (approximately 20 minutes) with the steam, and then right before serving, putting the baguette in the oven directly on the rack for 5 minutes to brown up the crust. Not only does the crust get nice and brown, but the bread will be hot at service. After putting the bread in the oven, lower the oven to 375 degrees F.
Do my baguettes turn out perfectly every time? Not at all. But they have all been extremely delicious. And as Claire has remarked, “They don’t look or taste like they were made by a machine.”
So if you find some extra time on your hands, may I suggest trying your hand at making bread? You may be pleasantly surprised at how easy and how delicious the results are.
Postscript: I am also currently reading The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating, and Spiritual Writing by Cristina Mazzoni. In the first chapter, Cristina Mazzoni looks at how a few saints have used bread as an analogy for the spiritual life. I will post those thoughts later in the week, as this post is already getting too long.