Artisanry: French Bread

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.

Day One

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.

Day Two

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.

Shaping

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.

Baking

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.

Artisanry: Lean Bread

This is the first recipe in Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day (page 46), and my first adventure in fancy bread.  Artisanal bread recipes are intensive, for sure, but the process is pretty simple.  There are many tiny instructions, but I think with practice all that stuff becomes second nature.  It’s more about timing, and having the patience to leave your dough overnight for fermenting purposes.  I plan to do this particular recipe a couple of times so that I can get it right before I move on to the next one.  This post is epically long, and for that I apologise.  But good bread comes out of it so it’s worth the time it takes to read.

DAY ONE:

Mixing Ingredients

Combine, in a mixing bowl or in the bowl of your mixer, 5 1/3 cups unbleached bread flour, 2 teaspoons table salt or 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 2 teaspoons instant yeast, and 2 1/4 cups lukewarm water.  Kosher salt doesn’t have any anti-clumping agents in it, so it is quite different in consistency and size from table salt or even sea salt.  Also, Mr. Reinhart recommends using instant yeast because then you get the fermenting action started right away.

Stir or mix on the lowest speed setting for 2 minutes or until well-blended.  I found that it all sort of clumped around my paddle and I had to remove it and start again before it took over the world. 

The dough should be, as Mr. Reinhart says, “very soft, sticky, coarse, and shaggy, but still doughlike.”  Whatever that means.

Use a wet spatula to scrape the dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl.  Let it rest there for 5 minutes.  It should be soft enough to spread out over the bottom of the bowl.  Mine, of course, didn’t.  I think the wrangling with the paddle in the mixer made it a bit tougher.

Stretching and Folding Dough

Once the five minutes is up you get to do some more fun wrangling. Put your dough on a slightly oiled surface.  With wet or slightly oiled fingers, grab the front edge, stretch it out, and fold it over top of the rest of the dough.  Now grab the back edge and do the same, then again with both sides.  Finally, flip the dough over and bundle it into a ball.  Put it back in the lightly oiled bowl and cover it with plastic wrap for ten minutes.

Repeat this stretching step three more times, every ten minutes.  You should get all your stretching out within forty to forty-five minutes.

Using my tripod I’ve taken pictures of most of the whole process, just to show you the mechanics of the whole thing and also the changing texture of the dough as it gets stretched.  The way Mr. Reinhart puts it, it’s like you’re aligning the gluten molecules through stretching, in the same way that iron atoms align along their poles when a magnet is created.

Excuse my scary scarred and disfigured hands.  They’re really not that weird-looking in real life – my hands are just not very photogenic.  Also, that stuff?  On my pants?  It’s paint.  I swear.  Those are my painting pants.  What, it’s a Saturday.  I’m allowed to be lax in my dress.  You should be glad you didn’t see my bedhead.

Mouse over the photos to see where we are in the stretching process.  Below is the second round of stretching.

You can see that the dough is already smoother than it was to begin with.  On to the third stretching round.After the third rest you can see that it’s already significantly larger than it used to be.  I also felt some bubbles in the dough that indicated the fermentation process had already begun.  I hoped that popping them in the course of my machinations wasn’t to the bread’s detriment.

Fermenting Overnight

After the final stretch I tucked the dough into a ball and put it in a larger, lightly oiled bowl.

Immediately cover the bowl with plastic wrap (to keep in the moisture) and chuck it in the refrigerator to ferment overnight or up to 4 days.

If you are planning on making loaves over the course of many days, this would be the point at which you could separate your dough into separate bowls for separate fermentation.  I’m doing it all at once so it all goes in at once.

DAY TWO:

Take your dough out of the fridge at least two hours before you want to bake.  Holy smokes look how HUGE my ball is!  And check out that MASSIVE bubble on the top.

It was sad to pop it, but the most gorgeous yeasty smell came out when I did so it was totally worth it.

Shaping Bread

This recipe makes 2 large loaves, 4-6 smaller loaves, or 24 rolls.  I’ve decided to make two of the three, see what comes out the best.  Don’t want to get over-ambitious here.

So I divided my dough in half.  One half will become a round loaf called a boule (‘ball’).  The other half will become 2 baguette-style torpedoes (or bâtards, haha, bâtards).

I used a sharp serrated knife to divide the dough, but you can use a pastry scraper as well.  Make sure if you use a knife you let the serrated edges of the knife do all the work, and avoid pressing down into the dough.

The trick to getting a crusty loaf is in maintaining the surface tension, so you want to pinch the bubbles you see on the surface to pop them, and be gentle in your stretching.

To make the boule:

This is pretty easy, and it’s something you’ve done several times before when you were in the stretching process.

Prepare a bowl or proofing basket.  I don’t have the basket so I took a bowl and lined it with a linen couche or proofing cloth.  For me, this is an old linen tablecloth that became too stained for company, torn into sections.  Spray the cloth in the bowl with oil and dust it with flour.

Gently pat the dough into a rectangle.

Gather the corners underneath and pinch together, stretching out the surface of the boule.

Place the boule, seam-side-down, in your bowl, mist it with spray oil and cover with the edge of the couche.  You can see how my seam is already coming undone.  Tsk.

To make the bâtard:

Prepare a pan by lining it with parchment paper and dusting it with corn meal or semolina.

Pat the dough into a rectangle, popping the bubbles as you go.

Using the edge of your hand, press a little furrow into the middle of the dough, running along its length.

Roll the front end of the dough over the top of itself until it’s all rolled up.

Pinch the seam shut.

Rock the dough back and forth, seam-side-down, until the dough has reached a desired length, probably between 6 and 12 inches.

Set the dough, seam-side-down, on your prepared pan.  Mist them with spray oil and cover with a couche

I need some serious practice.  Look how lumpy and deformed they are.  Tsk again.

Proofing

Proofing is a rest period in the fermentation process.  Once the bread is shaped, you let it sit, covered, at room temperature for an hour.

Uncover it and let it proof for a further hour.  Uncovering it will let the top of the dough dry out a bit and firm up.

Setting up the Oven

The Pie and I received a pizza stone as an engagement present (thanks KB!) in the summer of 2008 (holy smokes has it really been that long?), and we had yet to use it.  While the round shape of the pizza stone is not ideal for baking bread (Mr. Reinhart recommends an oblong shape), it’s the same consistency and will do the same job, which is giving a consistent heat without over-drying the bread.  It’s like bread magic.  You can of course do this with a sheet pan or cookie sheet instead, lined with parchment paper or sprinkled with semolina or corn meal.  I already own the stone, so I might as well use it.

About 45 minutes before you start to bake, you want to prepare your oven for hearth baking.  If you’re using a stone, place it on the centre rack and preheat the oven to 550°F or as hot as you can get it without turning on the broiler element.

The key to that lovely crackly crust is steam, believe it or not.  On the rack under the heating stone place a pan, like a rimmed cookie sheet, to be filled with water when everything gets hot.

Scoring

Just before baking, take your boule out of the proofing bowl and lay it on a clean surface, seam-side down.

Using a razor blade, score a cross-wise slash into the dough, which will allow some of the moisture to escape while baking and maintain surface tension.

On your bâtards, cut diagonal slashes the length of the bread.Baking

Ease your loaves onto your hot baking stone (use a peel if you’ve got one).  If you aren’t using a baking stone, put your prepared pan straight in the oven. I am pretty certain I overloaded my baking stone here, but I am not a patient enough person to wait and do it in two batches.  It’ll just bake all stuck together and I’m cool with that.

Very carefully pour one cup of water into the steam pan.  Use long gloves and wear long sleeves as you do this to prevent injury.  The Pie took this photo as I had my face averted and my whole body as far away from the heat as possible. 

Reduce oven temperature to 450°F.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for a further 10-12 minutes.  I found it easier to just rotate the bread, and I took the opportunity to break apart my breads, which were, in fact baking into one large lump as predicted.  I think I saved them from looking too demented.

You can get a crispier crust by turning off the oven and leaving your bread in for another 5-10 minutes.  Smaller bread shapes will take less time, of course.

Storing Dough

Cool your bread on a rack for at least an hour before cutting and eating.  It’s a hardship, I know, after all that time you’ve waited.  But it gets the crust all good.  I promise.  Or you could break the rules and eat some while it’s still warm.  We did.  Mmmmmm.

Wrap any uneaten baked bread tightly in plastic wrap and it will keep for a couple days.

I found myself constantly comparing it to the knowledge I had of French bread, and so I had to constantly remind myself that this isn’t French bread.  The dough is much wetter and the bubbles are much smaller.

When the Pie took his first bite and looked at me I knew he loved me a little bit more, the bread was that good.

Mr. Reinhart says that the unbaked dough will keep in the fridge for up to a week, but that the flavour of the dough deteriorates after four days.  He suggests that if you want to keep some dough for later you can seal it in a lightly oiled freezer bag and freeze it after the initial overnight fermentation.  Thaw it in the refrigerator the day before you need it so it can thaw slowly without over-fermenting.  He also says that the dough makes excellent pizza dough.