The recipe itself, while it is an all day endeavor, is not labor intensive – it involves lots of rising time with intermittent spurts of active working of the dough. I made the bread last Saturday and had to arrange all of my errands and outings around the various stages of the recipe. While the bread was baking I was simultaneously congratulating myself for completing my first Daring Bakers challenge, hoping that my loaves would come out looking like loaves, and deciding that I would most definitely not be again making what I was affectionately calling “all day bread”. After I pulled my two loaves out of the oven, I defied the part of the recipe that dictated a 3-4 hour wait time before breaking bread. I immediately served one loaf for dinner that night, but I let the other loaf rest for the required amount of time. Both of them were delicious. Incredible, in fact. Dan swooned over it like I had served him the greatest thing since sliced bread. (OK, OK! I know. I KNOW. Please stop throwing rotten tomatoes my way …) Uh-oh. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him have at the bread? Because now I feel obligated to not deprive him of what he has proclaimed to be the most amazing bread he has ever had. And believe me – this man loves him some bread. He knows his stuff.
The original recipe, in all of its glory, includes many different variations for how to make the bread (by Kitchen Aid stand up mixer or by hand) and how to shape the bread. I kneaded by hand and made two medium sized loaves, so those are the parts of the recipe that I will post below. Additionally the originally recipe called for the bread to be baked in canvas. I did not have any canvas so I baked my loaves freeform on a baking sheet and crossed my fingers. Happily, my loaves came out very pretty and loaf-like.
1 package dry active yeast
1/3 cup warm water, not over 100 degrees F in a glass measure
3 1/2 cup (about 1 lb) all purpose flour, measured by scooping dry measure cups into flour and sweeping off excess
2 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups tepid water at 70 – 74 degrees
1: The Dough Mixture – le fraisage (or frasage)
Stir the yeast in the 1/3 cup warm water and let liquefy completely while measuring flour into mixing bowl. When yeast has liquefied, pour it into the flour along with the salt and the rest of the water. Stir and cut the liquids into the flour with a rubber spatula, pressing firmly to form a dough and making sure that all the bits of flour and unmassed pieces are gathered in. Turn dough out onto kneading surface, scraping bowl clean. Dough will be soft and sticky.
Depending the humidity and temperature of your kitchen and the type of AP flour your use, you may need to add additional flour or water to the dough. To decide if this is necessary, we recommend stopping during the mixing process and push at your dough ball. If the dough is super sticky, add additional flour one handful at a time until the dough is slightly sticky and tacky but not dry. (Note: I needed to add extra flour) If the dough is dry and feels hard, add 1 Tbsp of water a time until the dough is soft and slightly sticky.
Turn dough out onto kneading surface, scraping bowl clean. Dough will be soft and sticky. Let the dough rest for 2 – 3 minutes while you wash and dry the bowl.
2: Kneading – petrissage
The flour will have absorbed the liquid during this short rest, and the dough will have a little more cohesion for the kneading that is about to begin. Use one hand only for kneading and keep the other clean to hold a pastry scrapper, to dip out extra flour, to answer the telephone, and so forth. Your object in kneading is to render the dough perfectly smooth and to work it sufficiently so that all the gluten molecules are moistened and joined together into an interlocking web. You cannot see this happen, of course, but you can feel it because the dough will become elastic and will retract into shape when you push it out.
Start kneading by lifting the near edge of the dough, using a pastry scraper or stiff wide spatula to help you if necessary, and flipping the dough over onto itself. Scrape dough off the surface and slap it down; lift edge and flip it over again, repeating the movement rapidly. In 2 -3 minutes the dough should have enough body so that you can give it a quick forward push with the heel of your hand as you flip it over. Continue to knead rapidly and vigorously in this way. If the dough remains too sticky, knead in a sprinkling of flour. The whole kneading process will take 5 – 10 minutes, depending on how expert you become. Shortly after this point, the dough should have developed enough elasticity so it draws back into shape when pushed, indicating the gluten molecules have united and are under tension like a thin web of rubber; the dough should also begin to clean itself off the kneading surface, although it will stick to your fingers if you hold a pinch of dough for more than a second or two.
Let dough rest for 3 – 4 minutes. Knead by hand for a minute. The surface should now look smooth; the dough will be less sticky but will still remain soft. It is now ready for its first rise.
3: First Rising – pointage premier temps (3-5 hours at around 70 degrees)
You now have approximately 3 cups of dough that is to rise to 3 1/2 times its original volume, or to about 10 1/2 cups. Wash and fill the mixing bowl with 10 1/2 cups of tepid water (70 – 80 degrees) and make a mark to indicate that level on the outside of the bowl. Note, that the bowl should have fairly upright sides; if they are too outward slanting, the dough will have difficulty in rising. Pour out the water, dry the bowl, and place the dough in it. Very lightly grease the bowl with butter or kitchen spray as well to prevent the risen dough from sticking to the bowl.
Slip the bowl into a large plastic bag or cover with plastic, and top with a folded bath towel. Set on a wooden surface, marble or stone are too cold. Or on a folded towel or pillow, and let rise free from drafts anyplace where the temperature is around 70 degrees. If the room is too hot, set bowl in water and keep renewing water to maintain around 70 degrees. Dough should take at least 3 – 4 hours to rise to 10 1/2 cups. If temperature is lower than 70 degrees, it will simply take longer.
When fully risen, the dough will be humped into a slight dome, showing that the yeast is still active; it will be light and spongy when pressed. There will usually be some big bubbly blisters on the surface, and if you are using a glass bowl you will see bubbles through the glass.
4: Deflating and Second Rising – rupture; pointage deuxieme temps (1 1/2 to 2 hours at around 70 degrees)
The dough is now ready to be deflated, which will release the yeast engendered gases and redistribute the yeast cells so that the dough will rise again and continue the fermentation process.
With a rubber spatula, dislodge dough from inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface, scraping bowl clean. If dough seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour.
Lightly flour the palms of your hands and flatten the dough firmly but not too roughly into a circle, deflating any gas bubbles by pinching them. Lift a corner of the near side and flip it down on the far side. Do the same with the left side, then the right side. Finally, lift the near side and tuck it just under the edge of the far side. The mass of dough will look like a rounded cushion. Slip the sides of your hands under the dough and return it to the bowl. Cover and let rise again, this time to not quite triple, but again until it is dome shaped and light and spongy when touched. You may need to lightly re-grease your bowl and plastic wrap for the second rise to prevent sticking.
5: Cutting and resting dough before forming loaves
Loosen dough all around inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Because of its two long rises, the dough will have much more body. If it seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle lightly with flour.
Making clean, sure cuts with a large knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into:
2 equal pieces for medium round loaves (pain de menage or miche only)
After you have cut each piece, lift one end and flip it over onto the opposite end to fold the dough into two; place dough at far side of kneading surface. Cover loosely with a sheet of plastic and let rest for 5 minutes before forming. This relaxes the gluten enough for shaping but not long enough for dough to begin rising again.
While the dough is resting, prepare the rising surface: rub flour thoroughly into the entire surface of a large tray or baking sheet to prevent the dough from sticking
Step 6: Forming the loaves – la tourne; la mise en forme des patons
Because French bread stands free in the oven and is not baked in a pan, it has to be formed in such a way that the tension of the coagulated gluten cloak on the surface will hold the dough in shape.
For Small, Medium, or Large Round Loaves – Pain de Menage, Miches, Boules: The object here is to force the cloak of coagulated gluten to hold the ball of dough in shape: the first movement will make cushion; the second will seal and round the ball, establishing surface tension.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Lift the left side of the dough with the side of your left hand and bring it down almost to the right side. Scoop up the right side and push it back almost to the left side. Turn the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the movement 8 – 10 times. The movement gradually smooths the bottom of the dough and establishes the necessary surface tension; think of the surface of the dough as if it were a fine sheet of rubber you were stretching in every direction.
Turn the dough smooth side up and begin rotating it between the palms of your hands, tucking a bit of the dough under the ball as you rotate it. In a dozen turns you should have a neatly shaped ball with a little pucker of dough, le cle, underneath where all the edges have joined together. Place the dough pucker side up on a flour-rubbed tray or baking sheet; seal the pucker by pinching with your fingers. Flour lightly, cover loosely and let rise to almost triple its size. After turning upside down on the baking sheet, slash with either a long central slash, two long central slashes that cross at right angles, or a semi-circular slash around half the circumference.
7: Final Rise – l’appret – 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours at around 70 degrees
The covered dough is now to rise until almost triple in volume; look carefully at its pre-risen size so that you will be able to judge correctly. It will be light and swollen when risen, but will still feel a little springy when pressed. It is important that the final rise take place where it is dry; if your kitchen is damp, hot, and steamy, let the bread rise in another room or dough will stick to the canvas and you will have difficulty getting it off and onto another baking sheet. It will turn into bread in the oven whatever happens, but you will have an easier time and a better loaf if you aim for ideal conditions.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees about 30 minutes before estimated baking time.
Step 8: Preparing for Baking
Turn the loaves upside down on the baking sheet. The reason for this reversal is that the present top of the dough has crusted over during its rise; the smooth, soft underside should be uppermost in the oven so that the dough can expand and allow the loaf its final puff of volume.
9: Slashing top of the dough – la coupe.
The top of each piece of dough is now to be slashed in several places. This opens the covering cloak of gluten and allows a bulge of dough underneath to swell up through the cuts during the first 10 minutes of baking, making decorative patterns in the crust. These are done with a blade that cuts almost horizontally into the dough to a depth of less than half an inch. Start the cut at the middle of the blade, drawing toward you in a swift clean sweep. This is not quite as easy as it sounds, and you will probably make ragged cuts at first; never mind, you will improve with practice. Use an ordinary razor blade and slide one side of it into a cork for safety; or buy a barbers straight razor at a cutlery store.
10: Baking – about 25 minutes; oven preheated to 450 degrees (230 degrees C).
As soon as the dough has been slashed, moisten the surface either by painting with a soft brush dipped in cold water, or with a fine spray atomizer, and slide the baking sheet onto rack in upper third of preheated oven. Rapidly paint or spray dough with cold water after 3 minutes, again in 3 minutes, and a final time 3 minutes later. Moistening the dough at this point helps the crust to brown and allows the yeast action to continue in the dough a little longer. The bread should be done in about 25 minutes; the crust will be crisp, and the bread will make a hollow sound when thumped.
If you want the crust to shine, paint lightly with a brush dipped in cold water as soon as you slide the baking sheet out of oven.
11: Cooling – 2 to 3 hours.
If you do not let the French bread cool, the bread will be doughy and the crust will be soft. If you want to have warm French bread, re-heat the bread after it has cooled in a 400 degree oven, uncovered and directly on the oven rack for 10 – 12 minutes.
Cool the bread on a rack or set it upright in a basket or large bowl so that air can circulate freely around each piece. Although bread is always exciting to eat fresh from the oven, it will have a much better taste when the inside is thoroughly cool and has composed itself.
12: Storing French bread
Because it contains no fats or preservatives of any kind, French bread is at its best when eaten the day it is baked. It will keep for a day or two longer, wrapped airtight and refrigerated, but it will keep best if you freeze it – let the loaves cool first, then wrap airtight. To thaw, unwrap and place on a baking sheet in a cold oven; heat the oven to 400 degrees. In about 20 minutes the crust will be hot and crisp, and the bread thawed. The French, of course, never heat French bread except possibly on Monday, the baker’s holiday, when the bread is a day old.