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Quest for the perfect baguette: part one

By September 20, 2015No Comments

I’m on the quest for the perfect make-at-home, without a professional bakery oven, baguette recipe. What I’ve been using is a bread machine recipe, which is okay. I’ve figured out how to make the crust nice and brown by squirting water into the oven. But the inside is still dense and, well, bread-y. It’s like a good baguette outside hiding a regular loaf of bread inside. A really good baguette should be full of big holes and should fight back when you bite into it.

There’s a lot I don’t understand about baking bread. I bought a book once but there was too much math. In the end, it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know–how to make chewy, crusty bread. In other words, I’m a novice, so forgive me in advance if I get a lot of things wrong.

2015-09-19 09.11.39I Googled how to make crusty, chewy baguette and started from there. This weekend, I tried Saveur’s four-hour baguette. This recipe uses ice cubes in a cast-iron skillet to re-create the steam that a professional bakery oven would use. They also call for a shorter loaf, 14 inches instead of 24-30, so you can conceivably fit it into your oven.

The bad news: it really does take four hours. No cutting corners here, though I was very happy to have my standing mixer with a dough hook for the 10-minute knead they call for. Ten minutes doesn’t sound like that long until you spend it kneading dough.

The recipe uses volume measures for flour instead of weights, which is fine. I don’t have a kitchen scale. You can get by without if you have a sense of what the dough is supposed to feel like, and that’s my complaint about this recipe. I ended up with a pretty sticky dough and I wasn’t sure if that was how it was supposed to be, or if my flour was just really full of moisture.* I added more while it was kneading and it turned out okay to work with.

DIY baguette couche

DIY baguette couche

For the last rise, you basically create your own baguette couche** with parchment paper and dish towels rolled up underneath. It was a little awkward, pleating the parchment paper and tucking the towels underneath, but I think that would get easier with practice.

I was worried that the three baguettes wouldn’t fit on my baking stone, which is a 14 inch, round pizza stone. But it worked fine. The longest baguette drooped off a little, but it all turned out okay.

I’ve tried cold water in a pan in the oven before, as well as a hot brick and many other desperate measures to create the right amount of steam. The ice cubes in the cast-iron skillet seemed to do the trick.

I’ve also tried multiple slits instead of one long one before putting the loaf in the oven. With other recipes, I ended up with a weirdly misshapen baguette, which I imagine had to do with how the crust was forming. This recipe called for three, 4-inch cuts at a diagonal and this time it worked.

The holes! The holes!

The holes! The holes!

So, the verdict? The baguettes were gorgeous on the outside. My husband immediately took a picture. They looked quite narrow, so I wasn’t sure what they’d be like inside. They weren’t as full of holes and pockets as I would have liked, but were still a definite improvement over the bread machine recipe. The crust was nice and chewy. The taste was quite good. If you have four hours to spare, I give this recipe an A. The upside is that it makes 3 baguettes, which means you can eat one, freeze one and give one away (if you’re so inclined).

*In humid conditions, flour absorbs water, which makes it more dense. So a cup of flour measured by volume isn’t always the same amount of flour depending on the weather, etc. Baking is tricky.

** I don’t speak French, but a baker’s couche can be canvas or a basket or sometimes metal. It’s a form you use to proof bread, or to give it a shape while it rises. Apparently, it also means diaper in French.

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