After some successes with Peter Reinhart’s Lean Bread, the Pie and I decided to branch out a bit and try the French bread in time for a Victoria Day dinner with KK, Il Principe, and the Norwegians.
This recipe uses the same ingredients as Lean Bread but a slightly different technique, so I really hoped I could get this right on the first try. I recommend you start with Lean Bread to get used to the whole process before you venture into French Bread, which requires a bit more concentration. Check out the photos from the Lean Bread experiment to familiarize yourself with the basic steps and baking preparations.
Because this recipe involves hand kneading I decided to do my initial mixing by hand as well, as I’m not entirely sure how to use the dough hook on my stand mixer. I also decided to measure my flour by weight and not volume and it worked out really well.
Put, in a bowl, 5 1/3 cups bread flour (24oz/680g), 2 teaspoons salt (or 1 teaspoon kosher salt), 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast, and 2 cups lukewarm water.Mix ’em up, for about a minute. If your spoon gets too doughy, dip it in warm water.
Let your dough rest for 5 minutes. It should be a coarse, shaggy ball at this point.
Now, knead the dough in the bowl by hand for about 2 minutes, getting in all that excess flour. If it becomes too tacky, add more flour. If it becomes too dry, add some warm water.Now move onto a lightly floured surface.Knead the dough for another minute, pushing and folding it together.
If you find that the dough is still pretty tacky at this stage, don’t add more flour. Instead, stretch it and fold it once or twice, just like we did with the Lean Bread, until the surface texture evens out.
Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it overnight. If you are going to make the bread over the course of several days, now is the time to separate it into separate chunks for individual fermentation.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator at least two hours before you plan to do your baking. I woke up early just to take it out of the fridge. Then I went back to bed.
Be gentle in transferring the dough to your floured work surface. You don’t want to disturb the bubbles.
Divide the dough into four equal pieces by cutting it gently with a knife.
Shape the pieces into bâtards (like we did with the lean bread):
Flatten the dough into a rectangle by pressing it gently.Roll it up.Seal the seam by pinching it. Then rock the dough back and forth until you have your desired loaf size.My bâtards still look demented.I wanted to do more with my loaves, so after leaving the bâtards for five minutes to sit, I took two of them to make épis (wheat stalks).
Flatten out the bâtards that you have created.Make a crease along the middle.Fold the front of the dough towards the centre. Use a wet finger to kind of glue it down.Fold the back of the dough over as well and seal by pinching.Rock the dough back and forth until you have created the desired length. Use more pressure towards the ends so that they are tapered. These baguettes are the first stage of the épis. Place your dough in proofing cloths sprayed with oil and dusted with flour, or on parchment paper dusted with semolina or cornmeal.Proofing
Mist the top of the dough with spray oil, cover with plastic wrap (loosely), and proof at room temperature for an hour and a half. They should be about 1 1/2 times their original size after that time.
Prepare your oven for hearth baking, just like the Lean Bread. Place your baking stone in the oven along with your steam pan and turn up the heat to as high as it will go before broiling. Because my pizza stone isn’t long enough for the shapes I’ve created I’m using the back of a sheet pan instead, which means if you proof your bread on the sheet pan (on parchment paper dusted with semolina or cornmeal), then you can just stick it straight in the oven where the stone would be when it’s time to bake.
Remove the plastic wrap from the dough about 15 minutes before baking.
Right before baking, score the bâtards with a razor.To make the épis, take your long baguettes and a pair of scissors. About 2 1/2 inches from one end, cut almost all the way through the dough (like 95%) at a 45° angle. Pull the cut section of dough to one side. Repeat the cut a further 2 1/2 inches in, and pull that cut dough to the opposite side. Repeat down the length of the loaf.My first one turned out kind of funny, but I got the hang of it by the second one.Transfer the dough to the oven, and pour one cup of water into the steam pan before reducing the heat to 450°F.
Bake the loaves for 15 minutes, then rotate and bake for a further 15-25 minutes. A finished loaf will be a rich golden brown and sound hollow when you tap the bottom. For a crisper crust, turn off the oven and leave the bread in for an additional 5 minutes.
Cool your loaves on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing and serving.The bâtards came out demented, as expected, but the épis both looked fantastic.We took ours on the road for a Victoria Day luncheon with KK and IP. Very popular.