Happy President’s Day! Also, Dr. Dre Day—the man’s 48!
I read through this recipe three times and my head was still ringing. Everything seemed so important—one misstep and my baguette would need a body bag, I read between the lines. I stretched this process into two days of work. I pre-fermented overnight. I let the loaves “cold rise” in the fridge for the maximum 16 hours. I woke up before 6am this morning to retrieve them from the fridge and bring them to room temperature. I preheated my oven to 500 degrees. As I glazed the loaves at 7am and trimmed the parchment I felt it was my life savings slipping off the peel and into the abyss. Please, please, please… And besides the one eyelash which fell into the dough and rolled into the left baguette (I noticed the imperfection during the glazing), they were absolutely perfect. The sunrise was no match for my French bakery-style baguettes.
Bakery-Style French Baguettes
1/8 tsp Instant Yeast or 1/4 tsp Regular Dry Yeast (or sourdough starter, don’t forget starter!)
¾ cup water 110-115F
1 cup 3 tbsp Flour
1/2 tsp Instant Yeast or 3/4 tsp Regular Dry Yeast
½ cup Water 75F
2 cups Flour
1 tsp Salt
1 Egg White
1 T Water, Room Temperature
1. Combine the ingredients for the sponge and stir with a wooden spoon to form a thick batter. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula and cover with plastic wrap and punch a few holes in the plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature. After 4-5 hours, it should almost be doubled in size and have tiny bubbles. Let stand until the surface has a slight depression in the center, 2-3 hours.
2 Add the remaining yeast to the sponge along with all but 2 T of 75F water. Stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the water is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and continue mixing until a scrappy ball forms. Turn onto a countertop and knead by hand, adding a few drops of water as necessary, until the dry bits are absorbed, about 2 minutes. Stretch the dough into a rough 8“x6” rectangle. Make small indentations with your fingers around the rectangle, then sprinkle with a tablespoon of water. Fold the edges up towards the center to encase the water, then pinch edges to seal. Knead lightly for about 30 seconds.
3 Alternate flinging the dough vigorously against the countertop and kneading it gently until soft, supple, and smooth, about 7 minutes. Perform the “windowpane test” by stretching the dough as thin as possible, forming a thin membrane. If the dough tears, knead 5 minutes longer. Repeat until successful.
4 Gather the dough into a ball, place in a large bowl, and wrap with plastic wrap. Let stand for half an hour, knead gently to deflate, gather back into a ball, replace the plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about an hour and a half.
5 Decompress the dough by gently pressing a fist into the center of the dough. Turn onto a work surface and divide into two 12oz pieces. Cover one piece with plastic wrap. With the other, cup hands stiffly around the dough and drag in short, semi-circular motions towards the edge of the counter until a dough forms in a torpedo shape with a taut, rounded surface, about 6 1/2″ long. Repeat with second piece and drape plastic wrap over the dough on the work surface. Let rest for 15-20 minutes.
6 Meanwhile, line an inverted rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Working one at a time (second piece covered with plastic wrap), roll into a log about 12“ long and place, seam-side down, onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with second piece. Space the logs about 6” apart and drape a clean, dry kitchen towel over the dough. Slide the sheet into a large, clean garbage bag; seal to close. Refrigerate until dough has risen moderately, 12-16 hours.
7 Remove an oven rack from the oven and adjust another to the lowest position. Place a pizza stone on the rack in the oven; place a heavy rimmed baking sheet on the oven floor.
8 Remove the baguettes on the tray from the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes, then remove the bag and the towel to let stand for 15 minutes more. Meanwhile, bring a cup of water to simmer in a small saucepan.
9 Heat oven to 500F. With a single-edge razor blade, make 5 1/4″ deep diagonal slashes on each baguette. Brush the baguettes with the egg white and mist with water. Quickly slide parchment sheet with the baguettes on top onto the hot pizza stone. Pour the simmering water onto the baking sheet on the oven floor and quickly close the oven door. Bake, rotating loaves from front to back and side to side after 10 minutes, until deep golden and fully cooked, about 15 minutes total. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes
After I read through the instructions several times, I was enamored with the vocabulary: rounding, crashing, windowpaning, but I had no idea what these terms meant. I found some videos which were as informative as they were hypnotic.
My favorite baker’s quotation from King Arthur’s Bakery:
“Think of the person you love the most. You went over and put your hand on them. It’s going to be gentle but also an affirmation. That’s how you want to touch the dough.” Aw.
I had never “crashed” dough before. You have to sprinkle water into a pouch you form in the dough, seal it up, and then take the dough and whack it against the counter. You look insane doing it, but if no one is watching, it is quite cathartic. Izzy was horribly confused, but she usually is. Then, the windowpane. I wanted so badly to have a perfect membrane. My arm got tired. I didn’t time it but if I had the clock would have laid over with a figure eight to say I had been kneading forever. I got about 1 cm of a windowpane before it ripped. Enough! I thought I would be doomed at that point, but there was grace. My loaves are fine.
They are not 15 inches as they should be. My oven isn’t that deep (seriously, world’s smallest oven). They are more like chubby footlongs. The two baguettes stuck together when rising in the fridge, which I worried about. They were fine.
My takeaway lesson from this experience is: don’t freak out when the America’s Test Kitchen cooks fill three pages of prose to describe what they snobbishly “thought could not be accomplished by home bakers.” Just watch those shaping videos, mist your buns, preheat your oven—everything will come out fine. Your best is enough.