Julia Child spent A LOT of time trying to come up with the perfect loaf. She writes in her memoir, My Life in France, that "it would eventually take us two years and something like 184 pounds of flour to try out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find." Wow...one thing is for certain...Julia had patience!
She eventually traveled to Paris from Cambridge at the request of Professor Raymond Calvel...a wonderful baker and teacher at the Ecole Francaise de Meunerie. There, Professor Calvel taught Julia everything that she needed to know. Julia's husband, Paul, even took photos of the precise positions of the baker's hands during each step. She went back home to Cambridge, and immediately started putting Professor Calvel's techniques to good use. There were only a few problems she had to overcome - First, what type of flour could be used in the place of the French flour (which has a lower gluten content)? Second, how would she simulate a baker's oven?
She did overcome these obstacles and ended up with a superb recipe to include in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II. Now, anyone can bake a beautiful French batard...with only a little patience and practice! Please don't let the length of this recipe scare you. The recipe itself is extremely simple...most of the recipe is technique and notes. If you're serious about baking French bread, I highly recommend purchasing a copy of MtAoFC, Vol. II....the illustrations helped me tremendously. The first time that I made this bread during THIS DARING BAKERS CHALLENGE, I only had the recipe to go by...not Julia's illustrations. I've made this bread several times already this month, and the results are much better than my first attempt.
Next time I make this bread...which will be pretty soon...I'll take more photos of the process and add them to this post!!***
(Note: you do not neet to buy all these items if you don't have them already. Just improvise with what you already have)
- 4 to 5 quart mixing bowl with fairly vertical rather than outward slanting sides
- a kneading surface of some sort, 1 1/2 to 2 square feet
- a rubber spatula or either a metal scraper or a stiff wide metal spatula
- 1 to 2 unwrinkled canvas pastry cloths or stiff linen towels upon which the dough may rise
- a stiff piece of cardboard or plywood 18 – 20 inches long and 6 – 8 inches wide, for unmolding dough from canvas to baking sheet
- finely ground cornmeal or pasta pulverized in an electric blender to sprinkle on unmolding board so as to prevent dough from sticking
- the largest baking sheet that will fit in your oven
- a razor blade or extremely sharp knife for slashing the top of the dough
- a soft pastry brush or fine spray atomizer for moistening dough before and during baking
a room thermometer to verify rising temperature
- 1 cake (0.6 ounce) (20grams) fresh yeast or 1 package dry active yeast
- 1/3 cup (75ml) warm water, not over 100 degrees F/38C in a glass measure
- 3 1/2 cup (about 1 lb) (490 gr) all purpose flour, measured by scooping dry measure cups into flour and sweeping off excess
- 2 1/4 tsp (12 gr) salt
- 1 1/4 cups (280 - 300ml) tepid water @ 70 – 74 degrees/21 - 23C
* 3 equal pieces for long loaves (baguettes or batards) or small round loaves (boules only)
* 5 – 6 equal pieces for long thin loaves (ficelles)
* 10 – 12 equal pieces for small oval rolls (petits pains, tire-bouchons) or small round rolls (petits pains, champignons)
* 2 equal pieces for medium round loaves (pain de menage or miche only)
If you making one large round loaf (pain de menage, miche, or pain boulot), you will not cut the dough at all and just need to follow the directions below.
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; smooth the canvas or linen towelling on a large tray or baking sheet, and rub flour thoroughly into the entire surface of the cloth 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 Long Loaves - The Batard:
(Baguettes are typically much too long for home ovens but the shaping method is the same)
After the 3 pieces of dough have rested 5 minutes, form one piece at a time, keeping the remaining ones covered. Working rapidly, turn the dough upside down on a lightly floured kneading surface and pat it firmly but not too roughly into an 8 to 10 inch oval with the lightly floured palms of your hands. Deflate any gas bubbles in the dough by pinching them.
Fold the dough in half lengthwise by bringing the far edge down over the near edge. Being sure that the working surface is always lightly floured so the dough will not stick and tear, which would break the lightly coagulated gluten cloak that is being formed, seal the edges of the dough together, your hands extended, thumbs out at right angles and touching.Roll the dough a quarter turn forward so the seal is on top.
Flatten the dough again into an oval with the palms of your hands. Press a trench along the central length of the oval with the side of one hand. Fold in half again lengthwise. This time seal the edges together with the heel of one hand, and roll the dough a quarter of a turn toward you so the seal is on the bottom.
Now, by rolling the dough back and forth with the palms of your hands, you will lengthen it into a sausage shape. Start in the middle, placing your right palm on the dough, and your left palm on top of your right hand. Roll the dough forward and backward rapidly, gradually sliding your hands towards the two ends as the dough lengthens. Deflate any gas blisters on the surface by pinching them. Repeat the rolling movement rapidly several times until the dough is 16 inches long, or whatever length will fit on your baking sheet.
During the extension rolls, keep circumference of dough as even as possible and try to start each roll with the sealed side of the dough down, twisting the rope of dough to straighten the line of seal as necessary. If seal disappears, as it sometimes does with all purpose flour, do not worry.
Place the shaped piece of dough, sealed side up, at one end of the flour rubbed canvas, leaving a free end of canvas 3 to 4 inches wide.The top will crust slightly as the dough rises; it is turned over for baking so the soft, smooth underside will be uppermost.
Pinch a ridge 2 1/2 to 3 inches high in the canvas to make a trough, and a place for the next piece. Cover dough with plastic while you are forming the rest of the loaves.After all the pieces of dough are in place, brace the two sides of the canvas with long rolling pins, baking sheets or books, if the dough seems very soft and wants to spread out. Cover the dough loosely with flour rubbed dish towel or canvas, and a sheet of plastic. Proceed immediately to the final rising, next step.
Step 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: Unmolding risen dough onto baking sheet – le demoulage.
(Note: we are only going to describe the unmolding of The Batard but the unmolding process is the same no matter the shape of your loaf or loaves. The key to unmolding without deflating your bread is slow and gentle!)
The 3 pieces of risen dough are now to be unmolded from the canvas and arranged 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.
For the unmolding you will need a non-sticking intermediate surface such as a stiff piece of cardboard or plywood sprinkled with cornmeal or pulverized pasta.Remove rolling pins or braces. Place the long side of the board at one side of the dough; pull the edge of the canvas to flatten it; then raise and flip the dough softly upside down onto the board.Dough is now lying along one edge of the unmolding board: rest this edge on the right side of a lightly buttered baking sheet.
Gently dislodge dough onto baking sheet, keeping same side of the dough uppermost: this is the soft smooth side, which was underneath while dough rose on canvas. If necessary run sides of hands lightly down the length of the dough to straighten it. Unmold the next piece of dough the same way, placing it to the left of the first, leaving a 3 inch space. Unmold the final piece near the left side of the sheet.
Step 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. For a 16 to 18 inch loaf make 3 slashes. Note that those at the two ends go straight down the loaf but are slightly off centre, while the middle slash is at a slight angle between the two. Make the first cut at the far end, then the middle cut, and finally the third. Remember that the blade should lie almost parallel to the surface of the dough.
Step 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.
Step 11: Cooling – 2 to 3 hours.
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.
Step 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.
Step 13: Canvas housekeeping
After each bread session, if you have used canvas, brush it thoroughly to remove all traces of flour and hang it out to dry before putting away. Otherwise the canvas could become mouldy and ruin your next batch of dough.
The Simulated Bakers’ Oven
Baking in the ordinary way, as described in the preceding recipe, produces an acceptable loaf of bread but does not nearly approach the glory you can achieve when you turn your home oven into a baker’s oven. Merely providing yourself with the proper amount of steam, if you can do nothing else, will vastly improve the crust, the color, the slash patterns, and the volume of your bread; steam is only a matter of plopping a heated brick or stone into a pan of water in the bottom of the oven.
The second provision is a hot surface upon which the naked dough can bake; this gives that added push of volume that improves both the appearance and the slash patterns. When you have the hot baking surface, you will then also need a paddle or board upon which you can transfer dough from canvas to hot baking surface. For the complete set-up, here is what you should have...and any building-supply store stocks these items:
For the hot baking surface: Metal will not do as a hot baking surface because it burns the bottom of the dough. The most practical and easily obtainable substance is ordinary red floor tiles 1/4” thick. They come in various sizes such as 6 x 6, 6 x 3, and you only need enough to line the surface of an oven rack. Look them up under Tiles in your Directory, and ask for “quarry tiles” their official name.
(Note: When this book was written, quarry tiles had a fair amount of asbestos in them. Today, in North America and Europe, they normally are made of clay. Make sure if you decide to go purchase some quarry tiles you only purchase unglazed quarry tiles because most of the glazes used contain lead or some other nasty substance that could get transferred. A large pizza stone will also work but make sure it is at least 1/4 inch thick because the thinner ones can break when used at the high heats that baking bread requires. Make sure you never put wet tiles in the oven because they can shatter or worse as the oven heats up.)
For unmolding the risen dough from its canvas: A piece of 3/16 inch plywood about 20 inches wide.
For sliding the dough onto the hot tiles: When you are doing 3 long loaves, you must slide them together onto the hot tiles; to do so you unmold them one at a time with one board and arrange them side by side on the second board, which takes place on the baker’s paddle, la pelle. Buy a piece of plywood slightly longer but 2 inches narrower than your oven rack.
(Note: Today, you can buy a real baker’s paddle easily online or at a restaurant supply store for about the same money as a piece of plywood and it will have a bevelled edge that will make sliding loaves in and out of the oven easier)
To prevent dough from sticking to unmolding and sliding boards: White cornmeal or small dried pasta pulverized in the electric blender until it is the consistency of table salt. This is called fleurage.
The steam contraption: Something that you can heat to sizzling hot on top of the stove and then slide into a pan of water in the oven to make a great burst of steam: a brick, a solid 10lb rock, piece of cast iron or other metal. A 9 x 12 inch roasting pan 2 inches deep to hold an inch of water and the hot brick.