25 April 2010

frrrr-ench bread.

The yeasty smell while baking.
The hollow sound when thumped.
The crunch of the crust when torn into.

These are just a few of the things that make me wish for the sort of lifestyle where I'm able to get up at the crack of dawn and bake fresh bread every morning. Alas, that lifestyle is - for the time being - far from my grasp. So, when a day comes along where I find myself with little to do besides wander about town with camera, or putter around my kitchen, my brain starts screaming BAKE SOMETHING!!!

This week I decided to try my hand at French bread - something I've always been terrified to make, despite my father always making it look as simple as toasting a freezer waffle. Having had such success with Peter Reinhart's bagel recipe, I searched through his Artisan Breads Every Day for the perfect French bread. Guess what? Not so scary! And I didn't have to whip out my junior high fran├žais once!

frrrr-ench bread
recipe borrowed from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day

{the stuff}

5 1/3 cups unbleached bread flour
2 tsp salt
2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
2 cups lukewarm water

{how to do it}

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. If using a mixer, use the paddle attachment and mix on the lowest speed for one minute. If mixing by hand, use a large spoon and stir for one minute until well blended and smooth. The dough should form a coarse, shaggy ball.

Let rest - uncovered - for five minutes.

Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium-low speed, or knead by hand, for two minutes. Add flour or water as needed until the dough is supple and smooth, and tacky but not sticky. The closest comparison I can make is to one of those dense, foamy stress balls - the dough should have some give, but you should have to use a little muscle to squish it much.

Knead the dough by hand for one or two minutes more on a lightly floured work surface, then transfer to a clean, lightly oiled mixing bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and immediately refrigerate overnight or for up to four days.

Remove the dough from the fridge about two hours before you plan to bake. Taking care to degas it as little as possible, transfer the dough to your lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into baguettes (10 oz,) boules (19oz,) or freestanding loaves of whatever size you like. Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature (or beside a warm stove) for an hour and a half. In this time the dough should grow to one and a half times its original size.

About 45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 550 degrees. (Having been unable to located a baking stone, I opted to use the back of a cookie sheet as my baking surface, and it worked just fine!) A heavy duty skillet or other pan filled with an inch or two of water and placed close to the upper element will generate steam which helps to give the bread its signature crust.

Remove the plastic wrap 15 minutes prior to baking, and score the loaves 1/2 inch deep with a serrated knife. Lower the oven temperature to 450 degrees and slide the loaves onto the baking stone or cookie sheet.

Bake for 12 minutes, rotate the pan, then bake for another 15 to 25 minutes - until the crust is a rich, golden brown and the loaves sound hollow when thumped. Cool the bread on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing and serving. 

(Ha! Right. I think I lasted maybe 15 minutes before tearing in and buttering up!)

So, here's the thing. Sometimes the life of a full-time waitress doesn't allow for preparing things ahead of time. Suddenly, its Sunday morning, you have company coming for dinner, and you haven't given two thoughts to the fresh bread which is supposed to be accompanying the delicious, homemade beef stew you with be preparing shortly.

I admit it - I'm a cheater. I mixed my dough, tossed it in the fridge, headed out for a greasy pub breakfast complete with Bailey's & coffee and two crossword puzzles, returned home and immediately continued with the next step in the bread-making process. But, guess what?? The bread was still delicious! Crisp and crusty on the outside, soft and dense on the inside. My only complaint? It wasn't quite as chewy as I like, and was lacking the requisite French bread holes.

So, lesson learned I suppose. Next time around I will get my act together and dough up the night before!

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