Thursday, March 8, 2012

French Bread

Last week I shared what I have to believe is the best ever recipe for French onion soup.  No one has commented any differently yet, so that's what I'm going with!  I mentioned in that post that I topped the soup with some bread, a la me.  Today is a cold, rainy, windy day in Southeast Kansas so I thought it would be an appropriate time to share the recipe I used for my French bread that I put on my French onion soup.  Oui!  (Man, I am on a multi-cultural roll this week!)

As I have documented many times, I am on a quest to make more homemade bread.  I am growing in confidence, and I just have more time than I used to so I don't have any excuses not to make my own bread.  I have also mentioned the limitations of my small town grocery store.  Well, about two weeks ago said grocery store suddenly closed.  They didn't even have a close-out sale for me to stock up on great bargains!  It was very tragic.  Anyway, I wanted a baguette for my French onion soup, but I would have had to go to a store in another town to get some.  All the more motivation for me to tackle bread on my own!

And it turns out that this bread is about as simple as it gets.  It consists of flour, yeast, water, and salt.  That's it!  Of course, like all yeast breads, you need some time to make this bread because it spends several hours rising.  But the hands-on time is pretty miniscule, especially if you have a stand mixer that can do the kneading for you.

The only things I changed from the original recipe is that I used half whole wheat flour and I made a half a batch.  The original yield was 4 baguettes.  My husband and I love bread, but I don't think we could handle 4 baguettes!  So I made 2 baguettes.  I will point out that the original recipe says that a quarter of the recipe would make a baguette that was 22 inches long and 3-4 inches in diameter.  My 2 baguettes were only about half that size.  I cut the recipe in half and made 2 baguettes, so according to my math they should have been the same size as the original.  I'm not sure how that happened, but all's well that ends well.  And this bread ended well!  This is how the loaf that we ate first looked after mere minutes.  We devoured it!

I used my stand mixer, but this recipe included instructions for using a hand mixer or doing it by hand.  As I mentioned, I made my dough into baguettes, but this recipe also includes instructions for making rounds.  I will share all the instructions with you.  It's always nice to know you have options!  So don't be scared off by the long directions.  I promise it's not that bad! 

To make the dough, start by putting 3-4 cups of flour in your mixing bowl and add yest and hot water.  Mix it for 10 minutes.
When about finished, dissolve the salt in the water and add to the batter. Blend for 30 seconds or more.  Then add additional flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough comes together and cleans the sides of the bowl. 
Knead it for 10 minutes.  You want the dough to be soft and elastic.  Put it in a greased bowl, cover it, and let it rise for 2 hours.
Knead it for about 3 minutes, recover it, and let it rise again for an hour and a half.
Punch down and form into a ball.
Shape into loaves or rounds.  Your choice!
Cover with a cloth and let the dough rise for another hour.  I just used a regular dish cloth (the recipe suggests a wool cloth) and I still got a nice crust.  Cut a diagonal shape into the top of the loaf.
Bake at 450 for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown.  The instructions talk about heating some water in a broiler pan before putting the bread in the oven.  This ensures that your finished loaf is nice and crusty.  A good crusty bread is perfect for a bowl of soup!  Just watch out for steam when you add the water.  I'm going to count that as my legal disclaimer!
Ah, now enjoy a wonderful slice (or two, or three) of one of the world's best foods--homemade bread.  Isn't it amazing how 5 simple ingredients can come together to form something so spectacular?  

French Bread
Yield: 4 baguettes
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups bread flour (or all-purpose flour)
2 packages dry yeast
2½ cups hot water (120-130 degrees F)
2 teaspoons each salt and water 
By Hand or Mixer: (10 mins)
The early part of this preparation, beating a batter, can be done by an electric mixer. However, don’t overload a light mixer with this thick batter. If by hand, stir vigorously for an equal length of time.  Measure 3 or 4 cups of flour into the mixing bowl and add the yeast and hot water. The mixer flat beater or whisk should run without undue strain. The batter will be smooth and pull away from the sides as the gluten develops. It may also try to climb up the beaters and into the motor. If it does, push it down with a rubber scraper. Mix for 10 minutes. When about finished, dissolve the salt in the water and add to the batter. Blend for 30 seconds or more.
Kneading (10 mins.):
If the machine has a dough hook, continue with it and add additional flour, ¼ cup at a time, until the dough has formed under the hook and cleans the sides of the bowl. If it is sticky and clings, add sprinkles of flour. Knead for 10 minutes.
If by hand, add additional flour to the beaten batter, ½ cup at a time, stirring first with a utensil and then working by hand. When the dough is shaggy but a solid mass, turn onto a work surface and begin kneading with an aggressive push-turn-fold motion. If the dough is sticky, toss down sprinkles of flour. Break the kneading rhythm occasionally by throwing the dough down hard against the countertop – an excellent way to encourage the development of the dough. 
First Rising (2 hours):
Place the dough in a large greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave at room temperature for 2 hours. The dough will more than tripple in volume – and may even be pushing against the plastic covering.(If prepared with a new fast-rising yeast and at the recommended higher temperatures, reduce the rising times by about half.) 
Second Rising (1½ hours):
Turn back the plastic wrap and turn the dough onto the work surface to knead briefly, about 3 minutes.Return the dough to the bowl and re-cover with wax paper. Allow to rise to more than triple its volume, about 1½ hours. 
Shaping (10 mins)
The dough will be light and puffy. Turn it onto the floured work surface and punch it down. Don’t be surprised if it pushes back, for it is quite resilient.
Divide the dough into as many pieces as you wish loaves. One-quarter (10 oz) of this recipe will make a baguette 22″ long and 3″ to 4″ in diameter.  Allow pieces of dough to rest for 5 minutes before shaping.
For boules or round loaves, shape the pieces into balls. Place in cloth-lined baskets (bannetons) or position directly on the baking sheet. For baguettes, roll and lengthen each dough piece under your palms to 16″ to 20″ , and 3″ to 4″ in diameter. Place in a pan or on a baking sheet or in the folds of a long cloth (couche).
This loaf’s characteristic couronne or “crown” can be made in several ways. One is to flatten the piece of dough, press a hole through the center with your thumb, and enlarge the hole with your fingers. Another is to roll a long strand 18″ to 24″ and curl into a circle, overlapping and pushing together the ends. A third way is to take 2 or 3 shorter lengths of dough and join them together in a circle, not overlapping top and bottom but pressing the ends together side by side into a uniform pattern – this one will be irregular but attractive. 
Third rising (1 hour)
Cover the loaves with a cloth, preferably of wool, to allow air to reach the loaves and to form a light crust. Leave at room temperature until the dough has risen to more than double its size, about 1 hour. 
Before preheating the oven to 450 degrees F (very hot) 20 minutes before baking, place a broiler pan on the floor of the oven or bottom rack so it will be there later. Five minutes before baking, pour 1 cup hot water into the hot pan. Be careful of the burst of steam – it can burn. 
Baking: (450 degrees F/25-30 mins.)
Carefully move the loaves in baskets and in couches to the baking sheet. Make diagonal cuts down the lengths of the long loaves and tic-tac-toe designs on the boules.
Place on the middle shelf of the oven.
The loaves are done when a golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Turn one loaf over and if the bottom crust sounds hard and hollow when tapped, the loaf is done.  (If using a convection oven, reduce heat 50 degrees.)
Place on a rack to cool.

Recipe adapted slightly from Brown Eyed Baker

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