Every Sunday morning after church, my cousins, aunts, and uncles would cram into every little nook and cranny at my grandparents’ house. One group gathered around a card table to watch my grandpa and my uncles play a fierce game of Wist, the girls hibernated to my aunt’s room to gossip about boys, and the rest of the group swarmed the oversized dining room table covered with delicious bites and nibbles.
No matter where my feet were placed, my nose was always stuck in the kitchen, fixated on the freshly baked loafs of bread my grandma spent hours crafting that morning. Each member of the family took their turn lined up behind the toaster, delighting in their very own piece of toasted and buttered bread. There was love in those loaves and we felt every ounce of it.
It wasn’t until I started baking my own bread did I know what that kind of love felt like. It created this spark, this passion – I created this loaf of bread! The baking of the bread started with a whole wheat recipe from my mom. The first batch of buns was too dense; the second was misshapen, but the third one – the third one was a charm! They were light and fluffy with a touch of sweetness lent by the brown sugar. I was hooked… and so was my husband’s family.
With bread formula number one down, I was ready to move onto bread formula number two – baguettes. In late December, I bought Ciril Hitz’s Artisan Bread. I looked at the cover, I flipped through the pages, and I contemplated which recipe to try first. On several occasions, I took the flour, the yeast, and the salt out of the pantry; then decided I didn’t have enough time to get through the process. I really wanted to perfect a new bread recipe, so I gave up on procrastination and I set a date. Thursday night was for the poolish. Friday night for the dough making and bread baking.
Prior to Artisan Bread, I had no clue what poolish was, but the concept of a starter was intriguing. I took out my bright green Crate & Barrel bowl, scooped out 1½ cups of bread flour, sprinkled in a pinch of yeast, and poured in 7 ounces of water, heated precisely to 77°F. I wrapped the bowl in plastic wrap and left it over night to become baguette starter magic.
Friday night was the big baguette night. I pulled out my Kitchen Aid stand mixer and poured myself a nice big glass of wine. Six cups of flour into the shining silver bowl, ¾ teaspoon of yeast, perfectly warmed water (92°F), and the big green bowl of poolish. I flipped the switch to a low mix and let the dough blade work its magic.
I placed the big ball of dough in an oversized Tupperware bowl coated with cooking spray and let it sit for 45 minutes. After a session of stretch and folds (also called degassing), I let the dough rest for an additional 45 minutes where it expanded to twice its size. I punched the dough back down and split it into four equal portions – taking this experiment one step closer to looking like four individual baguettes. One portion at a time, I degassed the dough by gently patting down into a rectangle, folding and rolling, until it resembled a stubby log.
Four stubby logs later, I let the dough rest for an additional 20 to 30 minutes. Then I stretched, folded, and finally rolled (with the heel of my hand) each individual piece of dough until it was approximately 14 inches long. I folded in the ends of the dough and placed each loaf, seam side down, on a wooden cutting board to sit for a final 45 minutes before heading into the oven.
When the final resting period was over, I began to score the dough. The recommended number of cuts for a baguette is 3 to 5… I went just a little overboard, averaging 7 scores per loaf. (Mental note for next time – hold back on the scoring.)
I had already pre-heated the oven to 475°. I transferred the baguettes to the baking stone, warming inside the oven, and dropped a soaking wet towel into a hot pan sitting adjacent to the stone. The steam the towel creates helps to form the crisp crust of the baguettes. After about two minutes, I was skeptical that the wet towel was giving off enough steam, so I opened the oven door quickly, splattered some water on the oven walls, and quickly shut the door to trap in the additional steam I just created. That seemed to do the trick!
The baguettes turned a beautiful golden brown and I rescued them from the oven after about 20 minutes of total baking. I moved them to a cooling rack, admired them, photographed them, felt them singing my praises. I had brought them to life!
I tore an end off of one of the baguettes. The scores were far from perfect, but the texture of the crust was flawless and the insides were everything I could have hoped for. The first big bite and I realized I had completely forgotten the salt…
Next up on my baking of the bread adventure – I’ve enrolled in Bon Vivant’s Smart and Easy Bread Baking class to absorb a few technical skills from the experts.