On our last trip to Paris, my husband and I rented a little pied-à-terre, graced with a balcony facing magnificent centuries-old buildings, brightly-colored tiny shops, and a friendly street. Most mornings, straight out of bed, I’d scamper over to the balcony, fling open the vintage double doors to hear, just below, the laughter of school children and, on Sundays, the ringing of church bells. This was a real Parisian neighborhood, void of tourists and crowds –and full of simple, everyday life (and baguettes).
Baguettes are a stylish accessory in Paris –chic Parisian briefcases, minus the hefty price tag. More than a handful of boulangeries nestle along our narrow street, filling each turn with the beautifully addicting smell of freshly baked pain au chocolat, brioche and baguettes. Ou la la…it’s my ultimate version of heaven. Though simultaneously, it’s torture. Torture, knowing soon I’d be on a plane and lose access to my vast pool of Parisian pushers, who happily supplied me with my daily fix. I’m a junkie. A baguette junkie. I don’t know when it all started, but I have a sneaky suspicion my loving Dad turned me onto this addiction at an alarmingly young age. He’s the kingpin, and known to disown family members who consume, at their peril, one too many less-than-stellar baguettes.
I’m not that bad. But I knew I had to get my addiction under control. More times than I’d like to admit, I tried mastering the elusive baguette at home, testing out crazy antics to achieve a dark-golden, crispy, crackly crust, coupled with the the perfect elongated shape, and failing miserably in the process. Luckily, I’m as stubborn as I am foolish, so finally, finally, I’ve cracked the code for baking homemade baguettes. The key? A long, cold fermentation similar to that used for my favorite whole-wheat bread, with the addition of a hot steamy bath. I want to (literally) throw a party after pulling these babies out of the oven. It’s an occasion worth celebrating when four simple, rudimentary ingredients – flour, salt, water, yeast – are capable of such a Herculean feat. I feel nothing but joy…pure joy! I’ll invite Dad to the party, as I know even he’d approve of these baguettes, especially served warm with a good slathering of French butter.
Then again, I might keep them a secret, so I can close my eyes, and visit our balcony in Paris whenever I need my fix.
HOMEMADE FRENCH BAGUETTES, yields four 16-inch baguettes
Tweaked from Artisan Breads Every Day, Peter Reinhart
I can’t be entirely sure whether it made the critical difference or not, but I used this pan, instead of a baking sheet. Also, don’t be alarmed by the extensive instructions – there’s a lot of waiting time and a bit of planning involved, but everything else is pretty simple. Just please, please be extra careful when pouring in the hot water for the steam pan (see below in ‘Prepare for Hearth Baking’ section for more detail). Steaming water WILL splatter, so I definitely recommend using a watering can with a long spout, standing back and covering up those arms and hands!
Music Pairing: Yann Tiersen, La Noyee
- 5 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
- 2 tsp salt, or 1 tbsp coarse kosher salt
- 2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
- 2 cups lukewarm water (about 95 degrees)
Prep Day: Combine all ingredients in bowl of mixer, set with paddle attachment, and mix on lowest speed for 1 minute until well blended and smooth. Dough should form a coarse, shaggy ball. Let rest, uncovered for 5 minutes. Switch to dough hook and mix on medium-low speed for 2 minutes. Dough should be smooth, supple, and tacky but not sticky.
Knead dough by hand on lightly floured work surface for 1 minute, then transfer to a large clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and immediately refrigerate overnight or up to 4 days.
Baking Day: Remove dough from refrigerator 2 hours prior to baking. Gently transfer to lightly floured work surface, taking care to degas it as little as possible. Divide dough into 10-ounce pieces for baguettes.
Form Baguettes: Pat each piece of divided dough into a thick rectangle. Fold the bottom half to the center and seal the seam. Fold the top half to the center and once again seal the seam. Roll the top half of the dough over the seam to create a new seam on the bottom of the loaf. Rock loaf back and forth to extend it to desire length, 6-12 inches. Let rest for 5-10 minutes. Repeat the same folding process: bottom to center, top to center, and pinch to create a seam. With seam side underneath, gently rock loaf back and forth, with hands moving out toward and increasing pressure at the ends, to slightly taper the loaf until baguette is the length of baguette pan (or baking sheet).
Mist top of dough with spray oil, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and proof at room temperature (preferably in a couche, or improvise on a clean linen towel, dusted with flour – leaving 3 inches between loaves so fabric can be bunched up to create “walls” for support while proofing – I placed my prepared towel and loaves on my baguette pan to further aid in keeping its shape, as shown above) for about 1 1/2 hours, or until increased to 1 1/2 times its original size.
Prepare for Hearth Baking: About 45 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a sheet pan, which will serve as the steam pan, with a 1-inch rim on shelf under which baguettes will be baked. Remove plastic wrap from the dough 15 minutes prior to baking. Gently roll dough onto baguette pan. Just prior to baking, score the dough 1/2 inch deep with a serrated knife or razor. Transfer loaves to the oven, pour 1 cup hot water into the steam pan. Always use an oven mitt and wear long sleeves when adding water to the hot steam pan to prevent steam burns. It’s also advisable to cover the oven window with a dry dish towel to prevent backsplash from hitting the window and cracking it – but remember to remove the towel before closing oven door! Using a watering can with a long spout when pouring the water into the steam pan provides control and distance from the hot steam.
Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate pan and bake for another 15-25 minutes, until the crust is rich golden brown, the loaves sound hollow when thumped, and the internal temperature is about 200 degrees in the center. Cool on wire rack for at least 35 minutes before slicing or serving. Best eaten the same day, or heated briefly in the oven the next day if crust loses its crispness.