It only seems appropriate that my very first post deals with the Baguette. It is neither the first thing that I have baked, nor something that I have baked many times. I have baked many baguette shaped loaves but never a true, crusty baguette.
Why is it important? Because, to us bread bakers, it is a rite of passage. A bread which can be your claim to have moved on from the basics–a Coming of Age, so to speak. (Like the lead portion of the instrumental section from ‘Hotel Calfornia’ for the guitarist of the 70’s) Elusive, because it takes many years of practice before you can actually lay claim to baguette adulthood. Mine is by no means perfect. In fact, nowhere close to it. The slashing could have been so, so much better, the ends tapered to a perfect point. . . but hey, I am not complaining Yes, there is a certain sense of pride. I finally have a blog AND I can bake a Baguette. What more can a gal ask for!
What is so special about this bread? For starters, (no pun intended) it is the simplicity. All you need is just water, flour, salt and a little bit of yeast. Anyone who has attempted anything simple will know that simplicity leaves you nothing to hide behind. That is the scary part. Baked the right way, the baguette will have a perfectly golden crispy crust, which will make a lovely crunching sound when you bite into it. The crumb inside it, tender and ever so slightly chewy. The baguette was never meant to be a weapon of destruction. You could take the regular bread dough and shape it like a torpedo and call it a baguette. It will never have the flavour or the texture that one has learnt to expect from this French staple. It needs patience (in large measure) and some technical skill.
My journey began with trying to find the right recipe. I knew I wanted the depth flavour but did not want to mess around with sourdough. So ‘poolish’ it was. I am not being poolish (sorry could not help that). It was so-called, because the Polish were the first to use this kind of pre-ferment. Water, flour and yeast are mixed and left over-night to ferment, develop flavour and gluten, and added to the dough the next day.
Stretched, folded, shaped and baked my baguette was finally ready. As I took out the lovely rolls of bread, what I heard was like music to my ears. It was the song of the baguette. It is the best sound that a baker can hope to hear. The cracking of the crust as the cold air hits the warm bread. It has its own rhythm of the kneading that went into the bread, the heart beat of the baker and the melody of the soul. Listening to my bread, I realised, it was singing a song just for me, I knew there could be no sweeter sound.
The recipe is slightly longish so please bear with me. Don’t try to hurry through. Believe me it is worth the wait. Just a note to those who live in the tropics–mix your poolish and set it out for a few hours before you transfer it to the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Next morning, set it out for an hour to take off the edge of the chill and proceed making the dough. If you leave the poolish out, by the next morning you will find a flat, over fermented mess. If you have a food processer, stand mixer or a bread machine, don’t be afraid to use it to make the dough. This recipe is roughly adapted from King Arthur Flour website. I made only half the recipe which gave me two medium baguettes. The full recipe should yield 3 large baguette.
It might be interesting to note that the poolish has a 100% hydration and the flour to water that you add the next day, precisely half of that. (The quantity of the flour is doubled).
For the Poolish
1 1/4 cups All Purpose Flour
2/3 cup cool water (I used water from my refrigerator)
1/8 tsp Instant yeast
Mix all the ingredients together until combined. Cover and set aside overnight. In the morning the rough shaggy mass would have doubled with the surface dotted with bubbles. Try pulling it and you will also discover it is really elastic.
For the Final Dough
2 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour
2/3 cup cool water (again I used water from the refrigerator)
2 tsp Salt
11/2 tsp Instant Yeast
1. In your mixer or a bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well till they are incorporated. It is perfectly alright if there are bits of dry flour still left at the bottom.
2. Cover and let it sit for about 20 minutes. This is to allow the for the autolysing. You could go ahead and start kneading, but setting it aside will make your job easier. The water and time will start the work for you.
3. After 20 minutes knead the dough until it feels tacky but strong. Stop when it is still well short of a smooth ball. Yeah, the surface should still be rough. Yes, that is right, you don’t have to knead all the way. Isn’t that nice!
4. Place the dough in slightly oiled bowl, cover and set aside for a couple of hours.
5. After an hour, gently lift and fold the dough on itself four times, each time, giving the bowl a quarter turn. This will help develop the gluten further.
6. After the 2 hours, gently remove the dough from the bowl and place on a lightly floured surface and divide the dough into 3 or 4 equal pieces.
7. Shape these pieces into a rough log and cover and set aside for about 20 minutes. You might need to use slightly oiled or wet hands to handle the dough.
8. After 20 minutes, press the logs into a rough rectangle and fold it in half, lengthwise. Press down with the heels of your palm or pinch to seal. Repeat the process on the other side.
9. Place the seam side down and roll the logs into baguettes, making sure they are narrow at the ends.
10. Place on a parchment paper, folded up to create an individual space for it to rise. If you have baguette pan or a couche you could place the bread in that as well. Cover and set side for about half an hour till almost doubled.
11. In the meantime heat your oven to the hottest temperature (mine goes up to 250 C) Baguettes need really high temperatures. If you have a baking stone, pop that into the oven as well.
12. When the baguettes have risen, use a sharp knife, razor blade or craft knife and slash the bread diagonally. You need to do it confidently, gently, swiftly and with the blade bent at 45 degree angle. ( as you can see, mine is terrible)
13. Spray the loaves liberally with warm water (this is to compensate for the lack of steam injected ovens) If you are one of the lucky ones who actually have one at home, you can avoid this step. The lesser mortals–this is important, because this is going to give the bread the characteristic crisp crust.
14. Slide the bread on to the baking stone (This will add to the crispness) if you don’t own one, do not panic. Just bake it on cookie sheet, lined with parchment for about 20 to 25 minutes until nice and golden.
15. Take it out of the oven and stick your ear close to the baguette and listen to it sing just for you.