THIS WEEK, I had great fun making French baguettes. A baguette is an elongated bread with a firm body, a deep, yeasty flavor, and a crust that snaps, crackles and pops when you bite into it. You can make this poetry, too, and with just four basic ingredients:
French Baguettes from an American Kitchen
Ingredients for 3 baguettes
1 package Active Dry Yeast dissolved in 1/3 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
2 1/4 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups unbleached “all purpose” flour
1 1/4 cup tepid water
1 cup cornmeal (to keep dough from sticking to towels and baking sheet)
Special Equipment: a pastry scraper; a baking sheet, sprinkled with cornmeal; 2 kitchen (or terry) towels, and a spray bottle filled with plain water
1. Making the dough — Pour flour, salt and yeast mixture into a large bowl; add 1 1/4 cup tepid water and stir around with a spatula to incorporate. Then pour this wet, sticky mass onto a non-porous work surface which has not been dusted with flour. (I use a marble slab for all my pastry-making adventures.) Let the dough rest for 2 minutes while the flour particles absorb moisture.
2. Kneading the dough — With your left hand, scrape up the dough with a pastry scraper, dump the dough into your right hand, and then slam the dough down onto your work surface. Repeat this action about 40 times, or until the dough softens up and looses most of its stickiness. This great aerobic activity causes the gluten molecules to join together.
Let the dough rest for 1 minute, and then repeat the lifting-and-slamming procedure for another 40 rounds.
3. The first rise – Place the dough in a clean bowl (you can wash out and dry the same bowl you used before), and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it triples in volume. In a 68-72 degree house, this will take about 3 hours. Remember, you can not rush a good thing.
4. Deflating the dough, and the second rise — With a floured hand, scrape the dough from the sides of the bowl, thereby deflating it. Release the dough onto your work surface. Pat it out with lightly floured hands.
then flip the other side over, as shown . Return to the cleaned out bowl, seam-side down. Cover; let the dough rise again for 1 1/2- to 2-hours, or until it doubles in volume. While you wait, plant some paperwhites.
Pat out one of the cut pieces. Then fold it into thirds, as if you were folding a letter. Remember when we used to fold letters?
6. The third and final rise — Sprinkle a handful of cornmeal onto a towel; place baguettes on the towel, making a pleat between each loaf, as shown. Lightly sprinkle tops with cornmeal, and then cover with a second towel. Let rise for about 2 hours, or until they have tripled in volume.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
6. Slashing the baguettes — Transfer the loaves to your cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet (yes, I photographed mine still on a towel). Then, with a safety razor, make 3 diagonal slashes about a 1/2-inch deep on each baguette. The slashes will open up during baking — and, if all goes according to plan — they will create a beautiful design on the crust. It isn’t easy to make clean slashes. But I keep trying.
7. Baking — 25 minutes at 450-degrees. Set the baking sheet on the bottom oven rack, quickly spritz the bread with water, and close the oven door. After 2 minutes, spritz again with water. After another 2 minutes, spritz again. It is the moisture in the oven which will cause the bread to develop an incredibly crispy crust.
After they have baked for 6 minutes, move the bread to the center oven rack, and continue to bake for the remaining 19 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.
I wish you could hear the beautiful crackling sound this bread makes when you slice it, break it, or bite into it. Of course it’s marvelous for sopping up olive oil or spaghetti sauce. I can tell you a slice of this baguette will hold its shape when floated on a bowl of fragrant onion soup. If I can make it, I’ll wager you can, too.
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