On Friday I wrapped on the last shoot in a several week assignment that took me to Dallas, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Scottsdale and finally Silicon Valley. Before that another project had me on the road to DC, Raleigh, San Francisco, middle of nowhere Arkansas, and New York City. After the jet lag sorted itself out, and after I sobered up from my 35th birthday party Dr. Fiance threw for me on Sunday, I came to several realizations. First, it feels really good to be back in St. Louis after so much time on the road. I missed my lady, I missed my apartment and I missed eating food that didn’t come from an airport. Second, while I was gone, summer ended and fall arrived. My! Favorite! Seasons! And third, Dr. Fiance (who has been working non-stop saving the world from disease) deserves to have bread made for in the manner she has come to expect from me.
Regular readers (if there are any left) will recall that when my schedule permits I bake most of the bread we eat here at home. For a while I always had a batch of five minute artisan bread dough in the fridge and made a loaf nearly every day. Then I moved on to the Peter Reinhart dutch oven bread which was more time consuming but had a much better flavor. In between I’d made sandwich bread and hangover bread. And all of those are great and definitely serve a purpose. However, there is one bread that has eluded me that has been high on my list of breads that I want to make: the simple baguette.
When we lived in New York City, Dr. Fiance and I ate out a lot and while I cooked some of the time, there were many nights when our dinner consisted of a fresh baguette purchased across the street with a lump of cheese and a bottle or three of wine. Our local supermarket in St. Louis carries those questionable par-baked “artisan breads” which are no comparison to fresh baguettes (and don’t get me started on the gag-inducing “Italian” loaves they carry). However, I’ve never been able to make a bakery-style baguette despite many attempts using many recipes. Until now that is.
My dad emailed me a while back and mentioned that mom had found an “easy” baguette recipe that he was going to try. I was skeptical, but asked him to send me the recipe. What came was a scan from a cookbook which may or may not be called Bread and Chocolate (searches on Amazon came up empty when I tried to locate the book). Knowing my mom’s penchant for locating obscure cookbooks at local thrift stores leads me to believe that this one is out of print. But the recipe did, in fact, seem easy enough so I gave it a shot. Much to my surprise, the results were simply amazing. Chewy, moist and flavorful loaves that are very similar to the ones that I love from the bakery.
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 cups warm water
4-5 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water
Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water and mix well with a fork. Let the yeast proof for 10 minutes. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add in the yeast mixture and 1 1/2 cups of warm water. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together and is combined enough to knead. Dump it out on a lightly floured counter or board, and knead for six to 10 minutes until the dough is tacky and smooth. Return the dough ball to a clean bowl and cover with olive oil. Let the dough rise until doubled, about an hour or so.
Punch down the dough and cut into four pieces. Roll each piece into a ball then shape into baguettes – mine are about 14 inches long. Transfer loaves to a baking sheet covered with a lightly oiled piece of parchment paper and allow them to rise for another half hour or so until nearly doubled in size. Preheat oven for 450 with an extra pan for water. Brush each loaf liberally with the egg and water mixture, then slash diagonally three or four times with a serrated knife or razor blade.
Bake for 15 minutes, putting 2 cups of hot water in the pan when you start. Then lower temperature to 400 and bake for another 10 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a rack.
Note: This recipe makes four small loaves. I made two the first night, wrapping the other two dough balls in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge. I made the second two the next day and they were perfect.
I’m not exactly sure why this recipe works for me when others haven’t because there isn’t anything dramatically different from what I’ve tried before. Perhaps the biggest thing is the kneading time – most recipes for bread these days eschew kneading at all and focus on really wet soft dough, which is hard to manage. Others call for complicated methods for shaping using fancy rods, pans and towels. This dough is easy to shape, easy to move and keeps it shape quite well. The egg wash using a whole egg instead of just egg whites seems to make a difference too. Perhaps that is the secret that adds to the think and chewy crust, sealing the moisture into the crumb.
A quick note on the size: I suppose depending on your definition these could almost be batards rather than baguettes, but my conventional stove will only allow me to make loaves that are about 14 inches long. I suppose I could squeeze it up to 24 inches if I went diagonal, but I don’t have a baking sheet or stone that is large enough. Believe me, in this case, size doesn’t matter. Four smaller loaves are just as tasty as two big ones.
I’m not really sure, to be honest, why these are so easy. But they are and you should definitely make some and take them out into the beautiful fall afternoons with a bottle of wine and enjoy them. If it ever stops raining that is.