Gee, who studied French in a Catholic high school? Thank you Soeur Assumpta, after nearly 30 years I can still recite the Notre Père cold. Anyhow, since everybody in the US is at the beach, the stragglers and non-US-ians who read me are going to get a bonus from my kitchen today.
I fancy myself to be a baker of some competence and I have been on a bread making kick lately. To that end, I've been playing around with a baguette recipe that I am now declaring fully tweaked and a consistent producer of some really good bread.
I'm convinced that bread baking is easy, but few kitchen projects offer such a rich return on investment. Bread baking is a contact sport which is what led me to it originally. It's also easy to fit into a schedule. Most bread recipes require short bursts of activity spread out over the better part of a day so it's easy to work around. In addition to those benefits, there is no food so satisfying to prepare. To me anyway. Flour, water and a friendly mold work with a baker to produce a food that's still the bedrock of most diets the world over. Human beings have been baking bread since the Stone Age and I mean that literally. Baking bread in 2009 isn't a very different process from how someone in 9,500 BC would have done it.
Well, that's not entirely true. The recipe I've been playing around with is for a baguette, an archetypal French loaf that's only been around since the mid-1800s. And without further ado, here goes.
1 teaspoon active dry yeast1 teaspoon sugar1 ½ cups warm water (105°--115° F)4 to 4 ½ cups bread flour2 ½ teaspoons saltolive oilIn a large bowl, take ½ cup of warm water, 1 cup of flour and a pinch of the yeast and mix together. Cover and let sit overnight at room temperature. The next day, add a cup of water to your starter and mix. Dry mix 3 cups of flour, sugar, salt and yeast and then fold into the larger bowl. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon.Take the remaining ½ cup of flour and use it to lightly flour your hands and a kneading surface. Turn the dough in the bowl onto the surface and knead thoroughly for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Rinse and dry the bread bowl. Lightly oil the bowl and transfer the dough back into it. Turn the dough to oil it top and bottom. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise at room temperature until it doubles in size (1 ½ to 2 hours).Preheat oven to 400° F.Take a cast iron skillet and fill it ¾ full with water. Set in the lower rack of the oven.Punch down the dough, turn it out onto the floured surface and form it into a long, slender loaf around 3" in diameter. Lightly grease a baking sheet and set loaf onto it. Let rise for ½ hour at room temperature.Make 3 or 4 diagonal slashes across the the top of the loaf. Lightly brush the top with olive oil. Bake on the center rack for ½ hour or until the crust is golden. Remove from oven and cool on a rack.
This is a simple recipe and it yields a loaf of surprising complexity and texture. Though the resulting loaf is fatter than a true baguette, its size makes it perfect for sandwiches. I like it still warm from the oven with good oil and a pinch of salt. When it's toasted and slathered in apricot jam on day two it will make you never want to buy bread in a bakery again.