Week Five: Breads for Parties
I think there is no more versatile or indispensable food you can have for a party than a trusty baguette. Whether you’re toasting slivers for elegant canapés or bruschetta, serving slices alongside a rustic cheese platter, or simply tearing into pieces to soak up that last delicious bit of sauce on your dinner plate, a baguette can do it all. It’s basically the Little Black Dress of the bread world: timeless, soigné, and goes with absolutely everything.
And, like the Little Black Dress, it’s darn near impossible to find the perfect one. Bakers have spent lifetimes searching for the method for a flawless baguette – there’s always just that one tiny aspect that could be improved upon. To the layman, however, those lofty ambitions can seem like tilting at windmills; I mean, didn’t that last loaf taste just fine? What’s the point in striving for perfection in bread where, because of differences in taste, there arguably can be none? But I take one look around the bakery section of any typical American grocery store, and I not only see their point, but I champion their cause! Have you seen the state of bread in this great nation of ours? The sad, dull-flavored, soft-crusted, dense-crumbed, anemic things that pass for a baguette would make Poilâne cry. They more resemble the dough they’re made from than a proper finished baguette, with its brown crust ready to shatter at the touch of a knife, its silky-soft interior that has an even distribution of little air pockets, and its gently sour, but somehow still sweet, flavor that haunts your palate. Once you’ve tried an expertly-made baguette, you’ll never be satisfied with those pale imitators again.
That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but I just can’t be bothered to research and sample every bakery in town. Or maybe you don’t even have a bakery in your town. That’s where this recipe comes in. I’m not saying it will win an International Baking Contest, but it might get you into the semi-finals. I know, it takes a while to make. But trust me, it is most certainly worth the effort. Start it the afternoon or night before, and finish it the day of your party. Yes, I’m serious. Most of it is hands-off, leaving you plenty of time to prepare other foods, or clean up a bit.
So what makes this bread so much better than another, less time-consuming bread? The main difference is the starter, or “poolish”, in this recipe. A poolish is a type of pre-ferment, usually a very wet one. It was first used by Polish bakers, hence the name. By letting some of the ingredients sit overnight, you develop far more complex flavors than you would by just mixing everything together at once. Kneading is reduced by letting time do the work for you instead; the gluten forms continuously and slowly, rather than quickly under your hand, making for a more tender and pleasantly chewy texture. With bread so simple (did you know that under French law, baguettes must contain only flour, water, salt, and yeast?), flavor is crucial, and is not only comprised of the actual taste, but of the texture as well. When one of those goes out of whack, the bread goes off. This recipe produces a highly excellent flavor, which can go far in forgiving a less-than-ideal texture. Since the best texture for a baguette is best accomplished in a professional-grade, steam-injected oven (and if you have one in your home, I’m coming over immediately), the extra help is definitely welcome.
Speaking of baking situations, if you’re lucky enough to have a baking stone, now’s the time to use it. If you want one, but don’t want to shell out the cash, try making your own with an unglazed tile or quarry stone. If you can’t be bothered, your baking sheet is just fine too. They’ll be equally tasty, if just a little less crunchy. I’m giving you this recipe in all the detail I have it in, because more information is better here. Apologies for information overload!
Even if you decide that you’ve got too much on your proverbial plate to make baguettes for your next party, I urge you to try these another time. They will certainly make any meal special, even leftovers. (And really, don’t leftovers need all the love they can get?) They are stunningly good. You’ll certainly amaze any guests, and you’ll probably amaze yourself too!
Makes 3 loaves
From King Arthur Flour
1 1/4 cups (5 1/4 ounces) unbleached bread or all-purpose flour
2/3 cup (5 1/4 ounces) cool water (approximately 60°F)
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
2 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) unbleached bread or all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons salt
All of the poolish
2/3 cup (5 1/4 ounces) cool water (approximately 60°F)
1. Combine the flour, water and yeast and mix until just blended in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Let the poolish rise covered at cool room temperature for 12 hours or so (overnight is usually just fine). It should dome slightly on top, and look aerated and just plain goopy. Try to catch it before it starts to fall, as it will be at its optimum flavor and vigor when it’s at its highest point. On the other hand, don’t make yourself crazy about this; I’ve used plenty of starters that were either pre- or post-prime, and they’ve worked just fine.
For the Dough:
1. Place the flour, yeast, and salt in a mixing bowl, the work bowl of a food processor, or the bottom of an electric mixer. Add the poolish and water, and mix until everything is more or less combined (it’s ok if there’s still flour in the bottom of the bowl). Let the dough rest, covered, for 20 minutes. This resting period allows the flour to absorb the liquid, which will make kneading much easier. Knead the dough, by whatever method you like, till it’s cohesive and elastic, but not perfectly smooth; the surface should still exhibit some roughness. You’ll want to knead this dough less than you think you should; while it’ll shape itself into a ball, it won’t have the characteristic “baby’s bottom” smoothness of fully-kneaded dough. So, why aren’t we kneading this dough “all the way”? Because we’ll give it a nice, long rise (fermentation), and during that rising time the gluten continues to develop. If you were to knead this dough fully before rising, the gluten would become unpleasantly stiff during the long fermentation.
2. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl (or oil your mixer bowl, and leave it there). Cover it, and let it rise for 2 hours, folding it over after the first hour. To fold dough, lift it out of the bowl, gently deflate it, fold it in half, and place it back in the bowl; this expels excess carbon dioxide, and also redistributes the yeast’s food.
3. When it has finished its 2-hour rise, divide the dough into three pieces and gently pre-form it into rough logs. Let them rest for 20 minutes, and then shape it into long (13- to 14-inch), thin baguettes. Proof the baguettes, covered with lightly-oiled plastic wrap, on a baguette pan, or a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet until they’re puffy looking, and about 85% risen, 30 to 40 minutes.
4. Preheat your oven (and your baking stone, if you have one) to 500°F. Just before putting the loaves into the oven, use a sharp serrated knife to gently make four diagonal cuts in each loaf. Hold your knife at a 45° angle to the dough’s surface, and slash quickly and decisively, about 1/2-inch deep. Be gentle, but quick; if you hesitate and drag your knife through the dough, it’ll stick rather than cut.
5. Spray the loaves with warm water; this will vaguely replicate the professional baker’s steam-injected oven. Reduce the oven heat to 475°F and bake the loaves for 18 to 24 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven when they’re a deep, golden brown, and transfer them to a rack to cool. Listen closely just as you take the loaves out of the oven; you’ll hear them “sing”, crackling as they hit the cool air of your kitchen. Let the loaves cool completely before slicing, if you can wait; if you can’t wait, understand that the texture of the loaves where you cut them may be gummy, as they still contain moisture, which will be emitted as they cool.
1. If you have a squirt bottle for water, that’s ideal, but you can just sprinkle the loaves with water flicked from your fingertips. Just don’t skip that step; it’s surprisingly important! You can just squirt them once, as you’re putting them in the oven, and then hit them again, after about five minutes baking; but I hardly ever remember to do the second time. They turn out pretty nicely just spraying them the once.
2. The twenty minute cat-nap you give the dough is called “autolyse”, a word you’ll probably never run across again. It helps the gluten relax, and makes for a better end product. But! Salt interferes with the action in autolyse! So, in contradiction to the recipe, I just mixed all the other ingredients, let the dough autolyse, and then added the salt after, as I finished kneading. I really don’t know how much of a difference it makes, but do whatever you’re most comfortable with.
3. I used active-dry yeast, and let my poolish sit for about 20 hours. It was just about perfect.
4. Instead of lifting the dough out of the bowl after the first hour of fermentation, I simply folded the dough over with a spatula, in the bowl, and kinda squished it down a little.
5. I turned my oven temperature down to 450º, and they took about 20 minutes to cook. Be sure not to remove them too early; you want a lovely brown color, not a pale golden.
6. Because these loaves contain no fat, they won’t keep at room temperature for very long. Eat them either the same day they’re baked, or wrap them in foil and stash in the freezer. Rewarm in a 350º oven, for 10-20 minutes (depending on how thick and frozen they are). My favorite trick is to cut a loaf into individual pieces and freeze them in a gallon ziploc. While cooking dinner, just reheat them in the oven, or under a low broiler until thawed and warm.