I'm not a bread expert in any way (although I am sounding like a baguette snob, oh well) but there is a specific texture and taste that a good baguette is supposed to have. If you like reading about food, you should read Jeffrey Steingarten - he has a fun chapter about baguettes in one of his books (I can't remember which one, but his writing makes my mouth water for foods I have never even heard of. That's how good it is).
I've sampled several Columbus baguettes now and am getting the impression that the mid-west is not somewhere that likes anything other than soft, fluffy bread. Supermarkets sell something they like to call a 'french baguette' which is more like a long, glorified dinner roll (pale and undercooked, sad sad bread). Then we tried one from the North Market, which was better, but still not Ace. It was flavourful but too crusty and too fluffy. Then last week, I bought one from Whole Foods Market thinking it would be close to the real thing, but it was just a bit better than the first supermarket one. Maybe there is a delicious baguette in Columbus that we haven't found yet, and if you know of one please tell me. In the meantime, I got tired of searching and decided to taken it upon myself to learn how to make one. D's sister always raves about homemade bread, and last winter D's mom started making her own bread too. Obviously it is going to take many attempts to become good at baguette-making, so here is my little tribute to food journalism, in the manner of Steingarten, my food writing hero.
For my first attempt, I decide to follow a simple recipe from a little book by Peter Mayle and Gerard Auzet because I am convinced that a French baker's recipe is the way to go, and am sold by the secret little 'inside tips' they offer throughout (like spraying your oven with water to promote good crust). I gather all my ingrediants and supplies:
Already I have a problem. He claims they use half all-purpose and half bread flour in the book, but then the recipe only refers to all-purpose flour. Maybe he means that the APF is really a mix of APF/BF. But when I check another recipe it actually lists both flours. What to do? I end up going with the 50/50 mix because of all the talk about this in the first half of the book.
Then I add yeast to the flour and salt and slowly add warm water, all of which I mix by hand. My arms are already aching. This already seems suspicious since most instant yeasts are supposed to be added to water to 'proof' before being combined with the dry ingrediants, but I overlook this fact because a) surely a French baker knows what he's doing and b) I am trying to follow a recipe correctly for once (D accuses me of not following the recipe when it actually matters). I am scared my bread won't rise.
The doughy mess sits for 10 minutes on the counter and now requires me to knead it for 15-20 minutes until it passes the 'windowpane' test, which is when the dough has developed enough glutens that when stretched, it doesn't break and allows light to pass through. I am learning that making bread by hand is really tiring. But a good workout for the shoulders. Thirty minutes later, I still haven't passed the windowpane test and I'm ready to lie down. I knead for 5 more minutes and just barely get my windowpane. Phew. Now we wait for the dough to rise:
Does it look doubled in volume to you? I don't think it will get any bigger, but at least I know the yeast is doing something.
At this time, D calls and needs a ride home from school. This gives me just enough time to cut the dough into four and shape them into batards. Once I return from picking up D, they should be about doubled in size:
Uh oh. They didn't move, so I guess the yeast stopped working. Does bread get bigger in the oven? These are going to be very baby sized baguettes. I carry on with the next step in the instructions, which involves creasing and rolling the dough into 15" long sticks:
I let them sit for another 35 minutes for the last rise, during which time my baguettes sadly remain the same size. At least I am following the recipe. The next part is to brush them with water and slash them 4-5 times across the top - trickier than it sounds. My knife drags through the dough and cannot seem to make a gash. I try again and the dough is looking more mangled every time, so I leave it. Now for the fun part. I drip water into the oven to create a nice steam room for my baguette:
And here they are! They don't get any bigger in the oven and look much more like thick breadsticks, however they do taste quite authentically baguetty. And there is a nice crust (I think the water trick worked). Two stuck to the pan completely and only their tops could be saved, but the recipe didn't say to flour or oil the pans so I don't see that as being my fault.
See the nice big holes? D thought they tasted better than any baguette we'd bought in Columbus so far, so this is a promising start (he later admitted that when he saw the four uncooked batards he was worried they would come out like rocks). Other than the abnormally small size, lack of slash marks and sticking to the pan, this wasn't a bad first try. At least the texture and flavour were good, which is what this whole venture was about. Next time, I'm going to mix the yeast and water first to see what happens.