Monday, January 11, 2010
les baguettes...or, in defense of homemade bread products
Yesterday was the second time I made homemade baguettes...
the first time they came out wonderfully, but yesterday-well, there's a fun little anecdotal story that goes with that.
Rewind to Saturday afternoon when Pinky & I were grocery shopping. He said "I need to get hot dog buns" and of course, I couldn't help doing my "eye roll" at him, saying "I can make those, you know!". What followed was a short debate on the merits of baking these types of things at home versus buying them at a grocery store. His argument was "how much is your time worth?". Yes, baking bread yourself takes time, but the actual work involved is only about 15-20 minutes TOPS. Most of the time you are letting the dough rise and you can go off and do other things. He still doesn't totally agree, but no worries, I'll win him over.
Let me say these things about crafting bread products yourself (in my defense, of course and so I don't seem like a crazy person with nothing but free time on my hands, both of which are not true. Well the first part is a little true, but I digress.)
1. making bread makes me happy. I love seeing the miracle of yeast, flour, sugar and water combining to grow, change and make something I could never make. As I told Pinky, the yeast is doing MOST of the work!
2. the whole house smells like a bakery- that amazing smell that you can't bottle and that NO can of spray, candle, incense, or febreze-type product can ever top. Who doesn't love their house smelling like freshly baked bread?
3. the taste. That's it. The taste. Top it with grocery purchased bread. I challenge you. There is NO comparison.
4. In my bread there are no "mold releasers", dough conditioners, preservatives, hfcs (high fructose corn syrup) or anything else that, as I told Pinky, "don't belong in bread". Get your loaf of grocery bread (from the big companies, like Wonder bread). How many ingredients are there? There are at least twice as many as there are in my homemade recipe for baguettes. That's all I'm saying. If you don't NEED it nutritionally or to make a yummy food item, why is it in there? Why? Because it's PROCESSED, and processed=bad. Fast forward to a big plus in my column of the argument when we got home and I pointed out to Pinky that both the white bread we got and the buns had high fructose corn syrup as the third ingredient. Yes, you need sugar for the yeast, but I'd much rather use real sugar or sugar in the raw than HFCS. He had to agree with that. (picture of me smiling, somewhat victoriously).
Yes, I could go on and on about the merits of homemade bread, but lets just get to the recipe, shall we? Also I'm sure you're dying to hear how the story ends; how Julia Child and one bite of my baguette helped win the argument for me. Well, in my opinion I won...
I started out a couple weeks ago with a recipe I found for "Baked Baguettes" on www.foodtv.com. It's a Tyler Florence recipe, so I guessed it might be pretty decent and a good "basic" recipe I could play with. Here's the single best tip I've learned from using foodtv.com's recipes:
READ THE COMMENTS! Seriously, people have made it before you and failed. You can skip their "Fails" by reading their posts and using their advice to your advantage! I've done it on several occasions. It can turn a good basic recipe on the site into something wonderful and you don't have to make it several times to try to get it right. I found the posts on the baguettes recipe extremely helpful. Read em', use em', don't have your recipe fail. This is especially important when you're making homemade bread and are investing practically a whole day into it. It's so sad when you do that and what you made turns out inedible. I know, I've had it happen. It makes you never want to try it again, because at that point you do feel it isn't worth all that effort to have it turn out so poorly.
So the first time I made the baguettes, they turned out great (I thought). That was until I changed even more things and turned them from great to outstanding.
Here's what I did, and it's simple. Rise, rise, rise!
From the beginning, lets go through the recipe though so you know what I changed and where.
* 1 package active dry yeast
* 1 teaspoon sugar
* 1 1/2 cups warm water
* 2 teaspoons salt
* 3 1/2 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
* Cornmeal, for dusting
* Milk, for brushing
No changes in any of this!
In the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast, sugar, and warm water; stir to blend. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
I let mine sit longer, almost ten minutes...it just seemed to really give the yeast time to get a jump start before I added the flour. I'm no pro bread-baker, but I'm guessing this made a difference. Eh, can't hurt, right?
Stir in the salt. Add the flour, a little at a time, mixing at the lowest speed until most of the flour has been incorporated and the dough forms a ball. Continue to mix at the lowest speed until the dough has become a sticky ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl; about 4 to 5 minutes.
Dust the counter lightly with flour. Knead the dough by hand for a minute and form into a ball. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let it sit in a warm spot for 2 hours to rise. Only change here is I put olive oil in the bowl to prevent mega-sticking. Not a lot, just to lightly coat.
Here's my big change:
I let my dough rise almost 3 and 1/2 hours. Hey, I got things to do! I also covered my bowl with a lid (my bread rising bowl is lidded, kind of nice) and I put a clean towel over that.
Side note: Julia Child said that you can slow down rising but you can NEVER EVER SPEED IT UP! Don't try! Do NOT try to make it warmer, that doesn't help. The yeast needs time, not warmth. The ideal rising temperature for rising is actually 70-72 degrees according to Chef Child. Low humidity/dryness of the air is important to and if you are dealing with humidity, that's something else you have to take into consideration. I kept wondering why, since I moved here, my breads are turning out so well. I now know: we keep our house about 72 degrees year-round, we have very low humidity here (in our house, but also in this part of the country. It's much less humid than Michigan was), and most importantly, I'm always leaving my dough, meaning, I tuck it in and put it down for a nice nap so the yeast can do its thing, and often I almost kind of forget about it! THAT'S why it's so good!
So add an hour to the rise, especially if it's cooler than 70 degrees in your kitchen. If it is, you'll need the extra time, well, in reality the yeast needs the extra time...and if it isn't that cool, you'll just get an extra boost of goodness from that extra rise time. You often read that your dough should double in size. Mine TRIPLES, and that's the way uh huh, uh huh...I like it! (nod to the 80's!)
Big Change #2: (you're all gonna kill me for this one!) I "deflate" the dough. I kind of knead it just a bit in the bowl, usually no flour required because of the oil. Fold it over a few times, turn, fold, gently! Make it into a nice little ball again and -as I interject-please don't kill me- cover and let it rise AGAIN, another hour and a half to two hours. I let mine rise two more hours.
I found that yesterday, this SECOND rise of the unformed dough made a HUGE difference. By the end of it, I had these huge bubbles in it (which you pop actually) and Pinky exclaimed "It's alllliiiive!!!!" I was all giggly and we laughed about my giant dough bubbles. It was awesome! THAT'S what makes all those swiss-cheese like pockets of airy goodness in the finished bread. (again, according to Miss Julia).
Next, "Deflate" the dough gently. Pop any big, obvious bubbles. Julia Child (in her french bread recipe) says to pop all the air bubbles. I didn't, and mine turned out great. I only popped the huge ones on the top and I didn't obsess over the smaller ones.
Now back to the "actual" recipe...
To form the baguettes: Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces.
My Change: I do TWO. If you do four, they'll be TINY. I've formed two loaves the past two times I've made this and was thoroughly pleased. Four=too small unless you want individual loaf servings for 4 dinner guests. That's cute actually, a little baby loaf for each person...hey, it's an idea anyway...but trust me, make it 2 loaves.
Press each piece of dough into a rectangle and fold the long sides up into the middle. Roll each into a log, taking care to close the seam. Taper the ends by gently rolling it back and forth. Lay the baguettes on a sheet pan that is dusted with cornmeal and cover with a towel. Let the baguettes rise for another 2 hours.
My Changes here: I normally use a pizza stone to bake my bread on, but I used a pan specifically for baguettes yesterday for the first time and I liked that too. I found the stone gave a crispier crust. But if you are serving senior citizens or don't want to have to gnaw through a tough crust, use a pan. I still recommend a baguette pan, but I also say, use what you have no matter what. Don't let not having a certain pan keep you from trying something. If you enjoy it, you can always invest in the pan later! That's what I did. I had the pizza stone, I used that. I loved the baguettes, I knew I'd be making them often (weekly, really), so I invested in a baguette pan. Mine was $10 at the kitchen supply store, and it worked great, so you don't have to spend a lot of money either! Here's my pan that my wonderful best friend Jamie bought me when he visited over the holidays. Ok, so I lied, I didn't spend $10 on the pan, he did. Thanks, Jamie!
Other than that, because I did a second rise before forming the loaves, I let my formed dough rise only an hour instead of two. See? You can forgive me a little bit for that second rise...I just shaved off an hour here.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
With sharp knife, make 4 or 5 diagonal slashes across the top of each loaf. Brush the tops of the loaves with milk. Bake for 40 minutes, until the bread is golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.
Note here: when you do the slashes, try NOT to "pull" the dough. You need a really sharp knife, or as Julia recommends, a RAZOR BLADE. What a GREAT idea! Why didn't I think of that? Oh, wait, I know, because I'm not Julia Child! Another important thing that I learned from her chapter on French Bread, one of those things no one tells you (but Julia), when you make slashes, you shouldn't be cutting INTO the bread. How to explain...she says "these are done with a blade that cuts almost horizontally into the dough to a depth of less than a half an inch. Start the cut at the middle of the blade, drawing toward you in a swift, clean sweep...remember that the blade should lie almost parallel to the surface of the dough".* Wow. No one EVER told me that in any recipe! Did you know? I didn't! PARALLEL to the surface of the dough. Huh. I always made cuts more vertically into it. Not way into it, but I wasn't as careful or artful as Julia said to be...and my bread came out so much nicer for doing it her way.
Last but most importantly after all that work, keep an eye on your baking time, 40 minutes might be too much. You just want the crust to be a nice, golden brown.
Well, there it is, and here's the end of the story. Last night, around ten p.m. my baguettes were finally done. Pinky was already in bed. I cut a nice end off one of the baguettes, put a little butter on it, took a bite and closed my eyes, my body almost melting into the floor. The taste, the texture, everything, it was beyond amazing. All the bread I bragged about in the past didn't even compare. I'm sure it's that second rise that really did it...
so I immediately ran into the bedroom with my piece of bread with only one bite missing out of it and shoved it at Pinky. I said "THAT'S why it's worth it!" and let him taste it. After a couple "mmhmmmmm's" he nodded. I said again "Tell me that's NOT worth making it yourself, that taste! You can't buy it!" I still think he wants to argue about it because of the time factor, but at least for this battle, the taste won. The war is still on...
*From "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two" by Julia Child and Simone Beck, Chapter 2, page 66