French Baguette

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What makes your heart skip a beat? You’ll probably think I’m weird, but cookbooks make my heart race. Well, at least that was how I felt when I checked out a pile of recipe books from my local public library a couple days ago. I haven’t been there in years and was surprised at the extensive collection of cookbooks they have now! Some of these books I’ve been wanting to buy for a while now, but just haven’t gotten down to ordering them. So imagine my delight when I discovered these titles and more, which meant I get to preview them before buying!

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One of the books I borrowed is master bread baker Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumb. He is the godfather of artisanal bread baking, at least to me. I mentioned watching his TED talk in one of my earlier posts and recently over Easter, I’ve been thinking about what he said with regard to the cycle of life and death in the bread-making process. For us to get flour, wheat (which is alive) must first be killed and crushed. We add yeast (bacteria) to dead flour and the dough becomes alive. In fact, the term ‘proofing’ means to prove that the dough is alive. We don’t, however, eat raw bread dough. The dough needs to die again in the oven (yeast is killed above 59 degrees C) before it is transformed into beautiful bread that gives us life. I just love that… it is so profound. Most of our food, be it plants or animals, have to give up its life so that we can live. If that realization doesn’t make us more thankful eaters, I don’t know what will.

Crust and Crumb does not contain many recipes. Instead, it has only a few basic bread formulas. In fact, it says they are ‘Master Formulas for Serious Bakers’. So I decided to try the most basic (but not necessarily the simplest!) of breads… the French Baguette. This is based on his French Bread I recipe that requires no pre-ferment but uses a long fermentation time to create deep flavour, a textured crumb and a blistery crust – all marks of a good loaf of artisan bread.

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As the yeast digests carbohydrates and sugars, it gives out carbon dioxide gas which forms the bubbles that create a bread’s crumb structure!

Just cos it’s aimed at “serious bakers” shouldn’t put any novice baker off. Because if you look through the steps, you’ll notice that most of the time you’re doing nothing! Other than putting the dough together, shaping it and then baking it… the rest is left to time to work its magic. So if you plan your bread-making schedule around your day, you could be enjoying artisan bread tomorrow, with little effort today!

French Baguette
(French Bread I formula From Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumb)
Yields: 3 baguettes

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups bread flour
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp malt powder/brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp instant yeast
2 2/3 cups tepid water

1. Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and knead with a dough hook on low speed in a mixer. Knead for about 4 minutes, then increase the speed to medium and knead for another 6 minutes.

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You can also choose to knead by hand for about 10 minutes

2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it slightly to bring it together, then shape it into a ball.

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The round ball is the best shape for bread dough to rise evenly

3. Place the dough in a lightly greased large bowl and then clingwrap over the top of the bowl. Let it ferment at room temperature for 30 minutes (enough time to do the dishes, check your email or make some calls!)

4. After 30 minutes, repeat steps 2 and 3, this time letting the dough rise for 90 minutes, or until doubled in size. (With this much time, you can catch a full movie or run some errands!)

5. Punch the dough down to remove air bubbles. Divide the dough into 3 equal portions and shape it into a long baguette roll.

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To get equal loaves, scale out the portions by weight

6. Place the shaped doughs on a tray. Dust the tops of the loaves with flour and clingwrap the tray loosely but completely to allow the dough to expand but not dry out. Refrigerate overnight and go to sleep.

7. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit out at room temperature for 1 hour before baking. Preheat oven to 475 F/250 C, and remove the clingwrap from the tray 15 minutes before baking to allow the surface to dry out a little.

8. Just before baking, score the loaves. Bake at 475 F for 10 minutes, then rotate the tray and lower the temperature to 450 F/225 C.

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Scoring the surface of the bread allows room for the bread to rise evenly in the oven

10. After another 15 minutes or so, turn off the oven and leave the bread in there for another 5-10 minutes.

11. Remove loaves from oven and cool on a cooling rack. Then devour quickly!

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