Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Baguettes & Boules

For sandwiches, crostini, to spread with jam or cheese, there is nothing better than freshly baked French bread. Italian bread is nice, too, but as with most things I like the French version better.


1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water
3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water
Oil for bread pan

1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let sit for 2 to 5 minutes, or until foamy and showing signs of life.
2. Combine flour and salt in a very large bowl using a pastry cutter, then add the yeast mixture and stir.
3. While still stirring, have a helper add the cold water in a steady thin stream and continue stirring until the mixture becomes dough, about a minute. If you have no helper, you can just pour a bit at a time and stir it in before adding more.
4. Knead the dough either on the counter or in the bowl for a few minutes, until the dough is smooth and soft. If it is hard to knead, dip your fingers in cold water and proceed with kneading (repeat as needed) until the dough is softened. If the dough is too wet, add a little flour to the kneading surface.
5. Form the dough into a ball and flatten it to a fat disc, then place it in the bottom of the mixing bowl. You should grease the mixing bowl slightly and get some of the oil on all sides of the dough. Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I usually set the bowl over the warm part of the stove where the pilot heat exhaust is. Sitting it near the radiator also works.
6. Punch down the dough and knead it for about 30 seconds to get some of the air bubbles out.
**If you want to, you can repeat steps 5 and 6 two or three times for varying levels of bread softness. I usually only punch it down once or twice.**
7. Cut or tear the dough into 2 parts and set one aside under plastic wrap or a towel so it doesn't dry while you work the first loaf. Flatten the dough into a large rectangle using your hands, pressing out air bubbles as you go, and fold the dough over itself in thirds (like a letter) lengthwise. Fold the ends underneath and pinch them well to secure them on the underside of the loaf. It should look like a baguette about now. You can make the loaf longer and thinner by rolling it with your hands if you want to. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, cover, and repeat with the other half of the dough. Cover both loaves and let rise by half, about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 450, then cut 1/2" deep diagonal slashes down the top of the loaves . Cover and let rise while the oven heats. Bake 20-25 minutes, and throw in 2 or 3 ice cubes after 15 minutes to improve the crust texture. They'll make a nice sizzling sound, but it won't hurt you I promise.

For a Boule
Starting at the end of step 6, Form the whole piece of dough into the smoothest ball you can by making a thick square and tucking the corners underneath, pinching them into the underside dough to hold them there. Place patched side down on a *lightly* greased baking sheet. Cover with a bowl or pot and let rise to double or triple its original size. Once it is huge, turn on the oven to 425 and cut a few deep slashes in the top with a serrated bread knife, cover and let rise a bit more while the oven heats. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing ice cubes into the oven after 15 minutes.

This bread is really great with peanut butter and blueberry preserves.


  1. OMG I want to eat that (especially the pic with the peanut butter and blueberry preserves)!

  2. The blueberry preserves are from Trader Joe's, they're TINY little blueberries. So good!

  3. ok, so uh, this post and A giving me a baggy of yeast last week got me kinda into bread. i'll try to summarize ...
    1st time: it was perfect. it was half-assed. i never really thought it would work, so i had fun with the kneading, thinking it was gonna be all process with no results. i got distracted and forgot about my dough, eventually balling it up and freezing it overnight to deal with it later. when that little ball un-froze, and i did all the rest the next day, it was real live french bread! amazing.
    2nd time: i got somehow both too serious and too cocky. i paid more attention, but somehow not to the right parts. too much kneading perhaps, too little rising. it didn't help that this time i was to show it off at a POT-LUCK. yikes, the pressure. something was wrong ... edible, but skinny. too dense and hard.
    3rd time: kinda the same deal. it was to be my dinner offering at a friend's house. again, the bread had to crumble, so to speak, under the pressure. again edible, again not really that great. my friend likened it to hard-tack, something dense that sailors used to eat. fuck him.
    4th time: yeah, i've made bread four times in the last week. and i've totally got it down. i'm eating it right now, in all its chewy, flaky goodness.

    general comments: it seems like initial dough consistency is really important. that elastic-y quality was just right both times i succeeded. and letting it rise enough. the two times i failed (ok, i know the friends who ate it were nice, but we can all agree now that it sucked) i was rushed and convinced myself that it had risen 'enough' when deep down i knew better. and there were a few other tips i could pass on. for one, i started to add rosemary, because my roommate got a bunch of it fresh, and that was real nice. for two, i tried brushing different kinds of things on the outside, to mess with the crust: a little egg white and water, a little oil and water, dusting the pan with cornmeal. for three, i started to apply techniques remembered from years of shit jobs. shit jobs have these little ovens, 'proofing' ovens they call them, that make dough rise really fast by providing conditions perfect for yeast to flourish -- basically warmth and moisture. they're just low-temp ovens with little metal pans of steaming water that your boss is always asking you to refill. i recreated that with a bowl of boiling water at the bottom of the oven during the final rising, when the dough pieces are knobby little proto-loaves.

    phew! thanks again, A, for getting me to bake bread. it rules!

  4. I made this tonight as a boule! I was a little intimidated at first, having never made a yeast bread at home, but it was so fast and so easy. I (shamefully) looked at the recipes on the website on the yeast packaging and was really surprised to not find a single recipe with as few ingredients and as simple as this. I had everything on hand, I had only needed to buy the yeast. I might never buy packaged bread for sammiches again.