Saturday, February 6, 2010

We’re all in luck

because today, Adam is going to tell us how to make baguettes.

He’s mastered them. I can say so conclusively!

I’ve been fortunate enough to be his guinea pig as he’s tested various recipes over the past few years. Seriously. That is not a bad position to be in. Who wouldn’t want to come home to fresh bread, hot out of the oven and a house that smells like warm, yeasty goodness?

There are few things better, I say. This is what Adam says:

Hi. BONjour!

I imagine this is some sort of guest appearance on a show where I come out and answer questions and sip a coffee mug with water in it? Sweeeet. If you couldn’t tell from the Porc Mignons episode, I’m a big advocate of French food and cooking. I’d say fan, except I promote all things French so much, as many of my friends annoyingly know, it’s unfair to just say “I like French food.” Technically my father’s side of the family is French, although my mom can speak it fluently if you lock her in a room. I think it’s important as an American to understand one’s cultural heritage, and without sounding too pretentious, I think you can gain some understanding by exploring the culinary aspects of your roots, among other things.

I’ve been a fan of bread for a long time, I think all of us are –especially when it’s fresh. I first started baking bread when I moved out to Westwood, and was finally on my own and not at home or in a college dorm. Having grown up with a mother who has excellent cooking skills, I wanted to replicate what I could get at home, which led me to comb through various cookbooks searching for something I could actually do. One of the books was a Williams-Sonoma breadmaking book, which had a recipe for a very traditional Jewish bread usually eaten at Passover called Challah. This braided loaf with a dark exterior and sweet taste wasn’t actually that hard to make, and miraculously came out looking like the picture on the first try. Slight variations in the recipe (ie. due to laziness) taught me some of the basics of what makes a good bread, the time involved, ingredients, and like all equations, doing things in the wrong process yields the wrong result.

Over time, I tried several types of breads with average success, but one that can taste so good yet never ever came out the way it should be was the French baguette. Over the past five years, I have tried probably 20 different baguette recipes. The first results were mediocre, and much to my advantage my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a week in France where I really got to learn what a good baguette looks and tastes like. If anything I made in the past was close, it was now obsolete. This started an obsession with finding a recipe and process that yielded a baguette with the perfect distribution of oddly sized bubbles in the loaf, combined with a crisp, slightly dark texture.

Now, you might be saying, “But wait! The identically sized submarine sticks they sell down at Vons or Ralph’s are called baguettes and those have fine little pockets throughout with a soft, light amber colored skin!” Sorry kids, that’s an impersonator. Real baguettes have an irregular pattern of bubbles big and small, with a semi thick sounds-like-a-tree-falling-over crispiness perfect for beating your lurking spouse out of the kitchen.

So, now that you hopefully have images of beret-wearing Parisians riding on bikes with a quiver of baguettes, alas! The perfect recipe. Remember! The quality is in the time put into this bread, give yourself a solid four hours to make magic.

Authentic French Baguette Recipe
• Flour: 4 cups. All purpose works, experiment with “strong” or “bread” flour which has a more robust protein structure. I like organic all-purpose.
• Salt: 1 teaspoon. Hold on, none of that morton’s iodized crap. You need flake kosher, or be really gastronomique and get a specialty salt like Himalayan Pink.
• Yeast: 14 grams (should be two of those packets) of active dry/ready yeast. Get a good one, not Bob’s Mystery Yeast.
• Water: Just below the 2 cup line. Tap works well, unless you’re in a 3rd world country.
• Olive or cooking oil: 1 teaspoon.

• Three mixing bowls: small, medium, and large. Two will work if you don’t have three.
• Dry measure cup: 1 cup size
• Dry measure spoon: 1 teaspoon size
• Wet measure cup: 2 cup size
• Medium size metal whisk. Could be substituted with a fork.
• Wooden spoon
• Kitchen thermometer, digital instant-read is the best
• A clean, solid, flat surface suitable for kneading and rolling dough (the more the better)
• A knife or bench scrapper
• A Silpat, if you’re a badass
• Two baking sheets
• A basting brush. Silicone for the high tech folks.
• A radio, iPod, or ghetto blaster with your favourite victory music

Let’s Do THIS:
Get out all of your inventory and equipment. Place the inventory on the left side, equipment on the right. Ensure your work space is clean and sufficiently lit. Recipes, especially ones like this, are properly executed with precision, which starts with the right environment.

Holding the bag of flour, POUR it into the measuring cup, and dump into the small bowl, four times. Do not scoop, do not pack, do not force the flour into the measuring cup other than its own pressure of the flour coming out of the bag and into the cup. You’ll notice pouring flour from the bag into the cup is not a smooth process, that’s alright. As you get good at this, you can slowly shake the flour out of the bag with one hand while using a sifting motion on the measuring cup to cause the flour to disperse evenly. Baby steps. You may pour a little too much, that’s alright, fortunately most bread recipes can accommodate water and flour by counteracting with the other. Once you can gage the flow of flour from the bag, you can hold the cup over the small bowl to catch overflow.

Scoop a teaspoon of salt, if you have to pour it, don’t do it over the bowl, just in case you get a little too excited. Dump the measured salt into the bowl, take the metal whisk and spend no less than one minute calmly mixing the flour and salt mixture. The objective here is to get the salt as evenly dispersed through the flour as much as possible.

Now you have a choice: you can either turn the handle on your kitchen sink to hot, and use the thermometer to wait for the right temperature. Or, you pour the water cold into the measuring cup, pop it in the microwave, and using small increments of time, heat the water. I like to get the water hot from the sink, the hard way, so that’s how we’ll do it here. With the water adjusted to hot, it will slowly, or quickly, go from cold to hot. Place the thermometer so the tip is in the water stream and wait until the temperature gets to 105 degrees (F). Hold the cup under the water and fill to just less than 2 cups. Place the thermometer in the water filled measuring cup and take a reading. You want the temperature to be between 113 and 115 degrees (F). “Well mine is 121 I’m sure that’s alright.” NO! You’re using hot water to activate the yeast, which requires a specific temperature range; too low, it doesn’t do anything, too high, they die. Yeah, it’s bad. So, if your temperature isn’t right, just adjust the sink output and add in hotter or colder water. If you microwaved, well, you really shouldn’t be using a microwave anyways now should you?

With your water temperature at 115, take a scissors or knife and open two packages of yeast. Don’t pour them in the bowl yet, if you do, when you pour in the water the yeast will clump and stick to the bowl and you’ll waste time trying to break them apart. Take the water, gently pour it into the medium bowl. With all of the water in the bowl, take your metal whisk in one hand, and gradually pour in both packets of yeast while lightly whisking. The objective is to fully incorporate the yeast with the water. When you’re done, the water should be a cloudy sand color and there should be no clumps of yeast anywhere. Let the water mixture sit for 5 minutes. During this time, depending on the yeast, the cloudiness may settle and then re-rise as a foam, or do nothing. Don’t worry, a genie isn’t going to pop out, you’re just letting the yeast properly activate.

With the five minutes elapsed, take the flour salt mixture and evenly pour half of the mixture into the water mixture. Take the wooden spoon, and begin mixing the flour/salt, water/yeast until it forms a fairly smooth consistency. Make sure you scrape along the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure all of the added flour is properly mixed. In order to get big clumps out, I like to quickly rake my spoon a quarter of the way into the dough and pull across rapidly to break apart flour clumps. What you have now is technically called a sponge, since it’s not really a full-on dough yet. Cover the bowl with something tight, but not air tight, and let the sponge rise for an hour. I use plastic cling wrap with a hole poked in it so I can see the progress. Store the bowl somewhere room temperature, not under a vent, and not in sunlight.

After 45 minutes, check on the sponge. Come back in 1hr 15mins and if it hasn’t changed in size it’s ready. This is part where you’ll need all of your clean counter space. Uncover the bowl, take the rest of the flour mixture and evenly pour it into the sponge. Using one or both of your hands, mix the flour into the sponge to create a dough. This process will result in your hands being completely covered in dough, which is why I recommend, if you have the energy, to use just one hand. You can use the other hand when we transfer the dough to the counter for kneading. After about 10 minutes of mixing, you should have a very sticky dough ball and a hand covered in dough.

Use the clean hand to thrown down some flour and spread it around on the counter to prevent the dough from getting completely stuck to the counter. If you’re really cool, you can run out to a kitchen supply store prior to doing this and get yourself a Silpat. Aside from saving you scraping dough off your counter when you’re done, you can leave it out for friends and guests to find and wait for them to inquire what in the world it is. Tell them is a magic carpet for baking and can take you to distant lands. Then look off into the distance out a window, sigh, and walk away. Assuming you don’t have a Silpat, make sure you properly flour the surface, some of the dough will still stick so don’t get upset when it does.

With the dough on counter, try and spread it out somewhat flat to 1.5” thickness, grab a little flour from the bag and sprinkle it onto the dough. Using the palm of your hand, press the flour into the dough. Take the upper left corner, fold it across to the lower right. Take the upper right corner, fold it down to the lower right. Take the lower left corner, folder it to the lower right. At this point you have made a semi triangular mound. Again with the palm, press down compacting the dough. Use your palm to flatten the dough again and repeat the folding steps. To change it up a little bit, you can improv with some different folding patterns and some twisting. Keep in mind it’s not rocket science, you’re creating bonds in the dough by constantly stretching and then compacting the dough. Each time you press the dough flat, you can optionally flatten out in a greater area and spread more flour on it if it’s remaining too sticky. The final product should be semi smooth and somewhat sticky, but not nearly as much as when you first started. In total, this process should take 15-20 minutes.

Grease the large bowl with the olive oil by pouring it in the bottom of the bowl and using your fingers wipe the oil upwards to the top of the rim until the inside is completely oiled. Keep in mind you don’t need a lot of oil for this, just barely enough to coat the surface. Take the dough, make it nice and round, place it in the greased bowl and cover again for an hour. This time the dough will rise substantially and really start to look like bread dough.

After an hour, remove the cover, re-dust the work surface with flour, and pour the dough out onto the counter gently aiding the dough while it’s coming out as to not let it tear. Without a lot of force, form the dough into a thick rectangle and factor slicing it into four pieces (that’s three cuts). I suggest lightly marking where you will cut the dough in case you make a mistake –be sure to compensate for the fact that the ends of the dough are not as thick as the middle. With four pieces cut, dust more flour on the surface, place three of the dough units to the side, and take the first one placing it in front of you. Gently flatten the dough to about 1 to 2 inches thick, making sure you don’t press out all of those valuable bubbles inside. Using the same folding pattern as before, instead this time rather than pushing it all down with your palm, clamp the bottom of the dough together, as if you were sealing a seam, and begin rolling it into a log on the counter. The rolling process consists of starting with both hands in the middle, rolling the dough, pressing down lightly, and moving your hands outwards, all in a consistent motion. This will cause the dough to form into a circular shape and will extend it as you gently press down and work your hands outwards. This isn’t a wrestling match, so take it easy when pressing down on the bread. Again, it’s those bubbles on the inside you don’t want to lose. Do this process to all four dough units. Each cylinder of dough should be from 1.5” to 2.5” in diameter. They do not have to be perfectly even, although you’ll see after baking whether you want them thinner or thicker depending on your preference.

Place the formed dough, two each, onto a flour dusted baking sheet. If you have enough clean kitchen towels, take two of them, lightly wet them, and place them over the dough and let it proof for 30 minutes in a room temperature space. I didn’t have spare towels, and took a glass baking tray, filled it with hot water, placed it in the bottom of the oven, and then placed my baking sheets in the oven to proof. Keep in mind, the oven is not on yet.

Depending on your oven, you may want to start pre-heating now to 410 degrees (F), or 210 degrees (C). My oven only takes 10 minutes to heat, so I took the loafs out of the oven 10 minutes prior to being ready and let them sit out in the open. With the oven ready to go, and the dough proofed for 30 minutes, take a brush and brush a decent coat of water onto the loafs and send them into the inferno. After 10 minutes, slide them out, re-brush with water, and continue baking for another 15 minutes, for a total of 25 minutes. When done, remove immediately from the oven and place on a cooling rack or appropriate surface. Let them cool for a good 10-15 minutes before you break them open and inspect the masterpiece.

These baguettes go great with a little beurre blanc de sel and a glass of Fleurie or Beaujolais.


kate said...

I'll pay you $5 if you make me a loaf when you guys get home....

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