Last weekend, with Bastille Day approaching, I made a plan to prepare some French food and decided to give the baguettes from the Breads from the La Brea Bakery book a go. This is the one bread that had me completely intimidated. It’s such a simple thing. They’re everywhere. Why so scary? Well, I had read about how tricky it can be to create a great baguette with the right crust, a good texture, and some flavor, and I had no idea what kind of results I could hope to expect. In the intro to this recipe, Silverton describes in detail what she believes makes a good baguette and the difference between fluffy ones and the rustic sourdough variety. Her recipe, and what you see here, is the latter. The classic, airy baguette is made with commercial yeast, but many of those contain added conditioners and extra yeast in an attempt to prolong their shelf life. Rustic sourdough baguettes have a caramelized brown exterior and pointy, irregular ends rather than smooth. The crust is slightly thicker and should shatter when you bite into it. The bread should compress as you bite it and then slowly rise back into shape. As usual, I followed the instructions in the book exactly, with a lot of uncertainty, and winged it.
This happens to be the same dough recipe that I followed for my first ever use of sourdough starter. There is no additional commercial yeast, just sourdough starter, bread flour, raw wheat germ, water, and salt. It was February when I made that first bread, and the house was several degrees cooler. Since then, my starter has developed better flavor, and the warmer temperature in the house this time around had a great affect on the dough rising. It worked so much better this time I was amazed. After the first rise, the dough was split into four pieces which were allowed to rest for 15 minutes. Then, each piece was folded and then rolled and shaped into a baguette. The rolling was actually easier with no flour on the board. It’s necessary for there to be some friction for the dough to be lengthened into the proper shape. Speaking of the proper shape, these are not skinny, classic baguette batons. Silverton points out that you should create the loaves to fit your oven, so for most home ovens, they will have to be shorter than commercial baguettes. I actually made mine the length of my baking stone, so they weren’t even quite the full size of my oven. The shaped loaves were nestled into a floured cloth, covered with another cloth, tucked into a plastic garbage bag, and left to rest in the refrigerator overnight.
The usual baking procedure was followed the next day. The loaves were removed from the refrigerator and allowed to come up to room temperature while the oven was heated to 500 F. The loaves were slashed, and I really need a good razor to do this because a knife just doesn’t work very well, the oven was spritzed, the temperature was reduced to 450 F, and in went the loaves. More spritzing ensued during the first five minutes, and the total baking time was about 30 minutes.
I was almost afraid to look in the oven at the end of the baking time. What if there was no caramelized brown crust? What if they were pale, sickly, distant cousins of a rustic baguette? And, then, I opened the oven door. And, then, I started dancing around and screaming about how pretty they were, and then I had to wait before I could taste them. Finally, I picked up a bread knife. The crust seemed good as I cut a piece. After a hurried photo shoot, I finally tasted it, and I realized this was the best bread I’ve made yet. All of that information about how the crust should shatter and the bread should compress was exactly what I experienced. I couldn’t believe it, and I think I have the weather to thank for it. I’ll definitely be baking baguettes year-round, but I have a feeling the summer bread will be hard to beat. This bread alone is worth the effort of maintaining a starter. I almost forgot, most importantly, I have the French to thank for inventing baguettes. Happy Bastille Day!
I’m submitting this to Yeastspotting, hosted this week by Nick at imafoodblog, where you’ll find some seriously well-made bread.