To go with soup and our lasagna dinner, I decided to try the French Bread recipe from Peter Reinhart’s book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
I’ve linked to a copy of the recipe available online, so that I don’t have to type it all out right here. I’ll note where my version differs from the one on that website. Edit: I’ve linked to my 2014 version of this above.
Whereas that version uses only bread flour, I only used (unbleached) AP flour. [Reinhart suggests half and half, but also said that you could use only one or the other.] I also used active dry yeast, which I soaked in a little of the water each time before adding it to the flour.
I made the pre-ferment, kneaded it for about 6 minutes, let it rise for an hour or so at room temperature, and then put it in the fridge overnight. It chilled for about 12 hours before I pulled it out to warm it up to make the full dough. I cut it into pieces and mixed it with all of the other bread ingredients, and then kneaded it for about 12 minutes. I used a folding and pushing technique, rather than slapping the dough around. I would normally use my Kitchenaid, but it wasn’t available.
I let it rise for a little longer than 2 hours. The kitchen was cool so I figured a little extra rising time wouldn’t hurt it. Then, I cut it (in the bowl) into 3 pieces.
Next was shaping. I (tried to) gently pat a blob of dough into a rectangle. I folded it like I would a letter, trying to seal the edges into the dough. I let it rest while I did the same to the other two pieces of dough. Next, I stretched out the ends to try to elongate each loaf. I made a crease down the center lengthwise, folded it like a letter along that crease, tucked in the ends, and rolled the dough so that it was the length of the pan. I set each baguette on a loaf pan to rise until they were about 1.5 times their original size. This took close to 75 minutes in a cool kitchen. At that point I slashed the loaves, trying to make slits in the loaves that kind of tucked under the surface, and preheated the oven.
To bake the French bread, you need to create steam. This is what I did (as recommended in the book):
I placed a sheet pan on the bottom rack in the oven and preheated the oven to 500F. I put the pan with the loaves in the oven on the top rack and pulled out the bottom rack so I could pour one cup of water onto the hot empty pan. I put the rack back in, closed the door, and after thirty seconds I used a mister to spray water on the sides and top of the oven. I misted the oven twice more, and lowered the oven temperature to 450F. I baked the bread for 10 minutes, rotated the loaf pan 180 degrees, and baked for another 20 minutes.
They cooled for a while before we cut one to go with the minestrone for dinner.
This was pretty good bread. It tasted delicious, and was by far the most beautiful bread I’ve made. The pre-ferment gave the bread a great flavor. The loaves of bread paled on the sides, where there wasn’t as much exposure to hot air (which couldn’t come up the sides because I was using a sheet pan, I guess). The top was a beautiful golden-to-dark brown. The crust was delicious. The slits I made in the dough worked – they expanded noticeably as the loaves baked.
All of the loaves had a fine grain – I must have squeezed too much of the air out of it as I shaped it, or I should have let it rise longer. It still tasted good, though. The crust was crusty and the inside was soft. It made great garlic bread to go with our lasagna dinner on Christmas. I definitely preferred it over the store-bought Italian bread we got for garlic bread the next day. I’m looking forward to trying this bread again and trying to use weighted measurements (instead of volumetric) and longer resting times for the pre-ferment.