This war falls into the same common categories as artists versus scientists, or philosophers versus mathematicians, or, better yet, cats versus dogs. I am sad to admit that I once participated, and even perpetuated, this conflict. Like many unwarranted biases, my disdain for all things baking and pastry, in the end, cost me. I lost many years of joyful baking, and nearly missed the opportunity to hone my own culinary skills through the application of some serious baking techniques.
This is why I wanted to write this particular series of columns focusing on baking. I believe I have mentioned before that my favorite class to teach is baking, and why I am offering two summer camps this year that are solely about baking (www.gtc.edu/summercamps).
Last time, I promised French bread. Up until now, we have been playing with gluten, but just a little. Not wanting to over work or over develop, we had recipes where we added the flour last, or mixed all our dry ingredients and added the liquid at the end, mixing only enough to form a rough dough.
This time, we are going to make bread, and that calls for a mixing method called the “straight dough method.” In this method, we add all of our ingredients at once and mix very intensively. In bread, we want to develop gluten as much as we can to create structure. Bread does not crumble apart like cookies or muffins, and is far more sturdy than pancakes. You need to be able to spread peanut butter on a slice of bread.
The bread we’ll make is a classic. Although the directions do seem complex, they really are quite simple, and with only seven ingredients.
Remember, weigh your ingredients for accuracy. In baking, the ratio of ingredients is critical.
Classic French Bread
Yield: 1½ pounds of dough
14 ounces bread flour
9 ounces water
1/8 ounce instant yeast
1/4 ounce kosher salt (
1/16 ounce malt syrup (one small drop will do)
1/4 ounce sugar
1/4 ounce butter
Corn meal, for dusting
Heat your water to 100 to 105 degrees. It will be easier to just heat a half pot of water and measure out 9 ounces, rather than heating up 9 ounces of water. You might lose some to evaporation.
Add 4 ounces of hot water to a bowl. Add your yeast to the water. Stir vigorously, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 10 minutes. Remember, yeast is a living organism in a dormant state. Adding too cold water will not wake them up, and too hot will kill them.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, add all other ingredients.
Your yeast mixture should be a little (or even a lot) frothy. This is perfect. If you do not have bubbles, you may have had your water too hot, and you killed the yeast.
Add yeast mixture to the other ingredients. Use the remaining 5 ounces of water to slosh in the bowl that held the yeast mixture, to get all the yeast. Pour into the other ingredients.
Mix on low for five minutes. Then mix on medium for 10 to 12 minutes. Alternately, you can work all your ingredients in a mixing bowl by hand. Once you have a cohesive dough, turn out onto a table and intensively kneed by hand for 20 to 25 minutes.
Place worked dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover and let rest for one hour. Your dough should double in size, but do not worry too much if it doesn’t.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Press the dough down (called “punching”) to expel the built-up gas.
Form the dough. You can make three even loaves of a half pound each, two at three-quarters of a pound, or one big 1.5-pound loaf. In all cases, you will want to form oval shaped loaves. Leave the formed loaves on your table, and cover with a lightly damp cloth or paper towel for five to 10 minutes.
After the loaves “bench rest,” we need to proof them. Proofing French bread requires a steamy environment. You can create that with your oven. Bring two pots of water to a rapid boil. Put one on the bottom rack of your oven. Leave the other until you get your bread ready.
On a cookie sheet or sheet tray, sprinkle a good amount of corn meal. You do not want a pile of corn meal, but rather a single layer of dusting. This will help prevent sticking. Place your loaves, leaving plenty of room for them to double in size (you make need more than one tray).
Place tray of loaves on the middle rack in your oven, making sure they have enough clearance to double in size. Place the second pot of rapidly boiling water on the bottom rack. Close your oven and let proof for one hour, or until doubled in size.
Once proofed, remove from the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Using a shape knife, make a single, shallow cut on the top of each loaf. This “scoring” allows the bread to rise in the oven without cracking the crust.
Lightly brush surface with water. This, too, will allow the surface to rise and expand without cracking the crust.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Check for doneness. Look for a golden color, and check by thumping the bottom of your loaf. It should sound hollow.
Have fun! If you have never made bread before, these instructions may seem daunting. After doing this three or four times, though, you start to see the rhythm, and it becomes easier and easier.