Not-so-French French bread for a lazy Sunday

If there were some culinary crisis in which it were decided that only one type of bread could exist in this world, I would undoubtedly choose baguette as my life-long bread companion. It is such a versatile loaf, happily accepting both savory and sweet toppings, grilling up nicely when made into a sandwich, toasting beautifully when cut into little rounds for crostini or sliced the long way for garlic bread, easily rip-able for instant hand-to-mouth conveyance, perfectly pleasant without any toppings, a nice base for bread crumbs, croutons, or bread pudding, and quite simply beautiful to behold. I love handling baguette dough, and especially enjoy shaping and slashing the loaves. There is nothing more satisfying than gently squeezing a fresh baguette and hearing a million tiny crackles.

Today felt like a baguette kind of day, but I wasn’t sure if I would be around at the proper time intervals to perform the various doughy tasks necessary. Although I’m sure I’ve never made a baguette that any French person would recognize as such, I have a basic baguette system that I am relatively pleased with, involving an initial sponge, two risings, and a proofing. Today, I thought I would try out James Beard’s “French-Style Bread” that simplified these tasks down to one single rising before baking (as found in Beard on Bread–the 2007 edition). As Mr. Beard points out in his introduction to the recipe, this basic bread could be referred to as “French-style,” “Continental,” or “Cuban bread,” which seems to be a way of saying “don’t be offended that I’ve made this dough into a baguette shape–I know it’s not really baguette, but it’s a good honest loaf and I like the shape.”

This sounded perfect to me. Cutting the recipe roughly in half (and playing around a little with the flours that I added), I dissolved 2 tsp. yeast and 1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar in 7 oz. water, and then added 1 1/2 tsp. salt, 9 oz.white wheat flour, and 2 oz. whole wheat flour. After a nice long knead, I had a very soft, supple dough. Although the recipe suggested a 1 1/2 to 2 hour rising time in a warm environment, I found a nice cool corner of my apartment where my dough could rise more slowly for a longer period of time. I knew I would be gone for at least a few hours, so I thought that a 58-60 degree environment would be ideal.

Unlike my deep-freeze refrigerator experiment, the time and temperature in this scenario conspired in my favor, and when I returned five hours later, I had a perfectly doubled dough ball hanging out at exactly 60 degrees–the yeast neither under nor over exhausted.

I deflated the dough, divided it in two, and–just for giggles–shaped one into a baguette, and one into a pain d’epi.

Because Beard’s simplified recipe skips the proofing stage, he instructs the recipe-follower to put the loaves into a cold oven, and then set the temperature to 400 degrees. In this way, the loaves get a brief and accelerated proofing as the oven warms, and then transition straight into baking. It took around 30 minutes from the time the loaves went into the cold oven to the time they emerged all nicely browned–at least half (if not more) of the time it would have taken for them to proof and then bake.

Touching and tasting these loaves revealed a few notable observations: first, that by skipping many of the rising and proofing stages of a true French bread, there was only a mild fermented flavor, and fewer air pockets in the crumb; second, that by starting with the loaves in a cold oven, the thick, crisp crust usually formed on a French bread when shoved into a piping hot oven was missing.

This being said, the bread was most delicious, if not entirely French. The crumb was as soft and supple on the tongue as the dough had been on my hands, and had a perfectly balanced chewiness. It was slightly more dense than a real French bread, as it lacked quite as many lofty air bubbles, but this only served to raise the crumb-to-topping ratio, and allowed the pleasantly mild yeasty flavor to make a bigger appearance in each bite. The versatility of the real baguette was definitely not lost on these loaves. Case in point: excellent vehicle for nutella:

So, Mr. Beard was very diplomatic in calling this a “French-style” loaf, and I consider it an excellent go-to recipe/formula when time is a precious commodity. If one could create a 50 degree environment, this dough would be a perfect contender for a “9 to 5” loaf. The decrease in temperature would allow for a couple more hours of fermentation without over-exhausting the yeast, and the loaves could be popped in the oven immediately upon arrival home–fresh bread ready just in time for dinner.

Thank you, James Beard!

My “workin’ 9 to 5” rustic loaf

It’s difficult to plan a good loaf of bread around your work day. Quick breads are all well and good, but lack the depth of flavor and complexity of texture that a loaf gets when given ample fermentation time. Since most folks only have a couple of hours between the time they arrive home and the time their tummies start grumbling, ample fermentation time is not exactly an option unless the bread is intended as a midnight snack.

Enter alarm clock and refrigerator.

If your morning self is willing to rise an extra half hour early, your evening self will be most pleased. The basic premise is as follows: you summon all of your energy to knead a few ingredients together in the wee hours of the morning, stick the resulting doughy mass in the fridge, proceed to work, do your work, return home, pull the dough out of the fridge where it has been fermenting at a slow-ish rate for a long-ish time, let the dough enjoy some balmier temperatures for an hour or two, and bake said dough into a fragrant loaf just in time for dinner.

Since my “9 to 5” is more like a “6 to 2,” I found that my brain was a bit more muddled than I would have liked it to be when I rose extra early this morning. In my delirium I threw ingredients into my bowl willy-nilly and ended up with the following mixture:

5 oz. water (I was hoping to make a very small loaf, as I have ample bread stores at the moment)

1/2 tsp. yeast

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

2-ish tsp. chopped rosemary

a dash of olive oil

a couple small spoonfuls of my sourdough starter for good measure (added not for its leavening abilities, but because I figured a tiny dose of this potent concoction would help boost my loaf’s flavor)

2 oz. whole wheat flour

9-10 oz. white wheat flour

After kneading the dough much like I imagine a zombie would knead–eye’s glazed over, arms stretched out, mouth agape–I popped the whole thing in the fridge and headed to work.

Ideally, my dough would have experienced a little more action by the time I had returned home, but as I remembered upon opening my refrigerator door, this fridge loves to go into deep freeze mode no matter how much you fiddle with the little dial. This meant that I had to let the dough spend a bit more time frolicking in warmer temperatures before I baked it, which would have thrown off my estimated dinner time, had I been a true 9-5-er. In a perfect world, my dough would have approximately doubled over an 8 hour period in a not-too-cold fridge (according to the authors of Bread Alone, a 50 degree environment would be ideal–somewhere between a fridge and a frugally kept house temperature). As it was, I let the dough come up to temperature for nearly 2 hours before shaping it and letting it proof for another half hour to an hour. I then brushed it with olive oil and baked it at around 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Although my time-table was a bit altered due to my enthusiastic fridge, a lovely and very fragrant rustic rosemary loaf popped out just in time for dinner.

The crust was thick and crunchy, and in high proportion to the moist, rosemary-infused interior.

A rustic herbed loaf with a high crust to crumb ratio just begged to be eaten with a hearty stew. Having been sent home last night with a big tub of delicious lentil veggie soup (thanks Mom!), I was able to provide the bread with its perfect complement.

Although this recipe/time formula could definitely use some tweaking, I was able to bake a well-fermented loaf on a work day without bringing my bowl of dough to work with me, as tempting as that might have been. Perhaps a national bring-your-bread-to-work day is in order.

Semolina loaf

Well, Reny’s has me figured out. A giant wall of Bob’s Red Mill products nearly hit me in the face when I walked in, each sporting a very friendly little price tag. Who could resist in the face of such bounty?

I left with a big bag full of whole wheat flour, cornmeal, white rice flour, oat flour, soy flour and semolina flour. Semolina flour interested me in particular because of its high gluten content, a quality widely cherished by pasta-makers. I wanted to cherish this quality too, but with a little yeast thrown in the mix to expand the glorious network of glutenous strands into a loaf of bread, not a strip of linguini. I turned to Bob’s semolina bread recipe to get the basic gist of the proportions one uses when baking with semolina flour, and played around with the recipe to my liking. So, the recipe that follows is part Bob, part Nina.

To begin with, I made a small starter:

7 oz. water

3 oz. milk

2 tsp. yeast

7 oz. semolina flour

4 oz. white wheat flour

(I really wanted to throw a little dairy in this loaf to repeat the soft crumb of the ciabatta, plus I thought it would go nicely with the honey and butter that would soon be added to this rich dough.)

I let the starter do it’s thing for about 1.5 hours, although it could only have benefited from a longer fermentation.

Instead of using olive oil and granulated sugar, I melted together about 1.5 TB butter with 1.5 TB honey, let the mixture cool off a bit so as not to kill the little yeasties, and added it to my starter, along with 2 tsp. salt and about 5.5 oz. white wheat flour.

Kneading this dough was a treat. The fine texture of the semolina flour lent the dough a soft pliability that was most satisfying, and which yielded a little round ball that looked freakishly uniform.

I left my little dough ball to rise in a covered bowl. I was gone a little longer than I had anticipated, so the little guy was not so little by the time I returned home, and I quickly patted him down and stuck him in a loaf pan for a very brief proofing. After a 20-30 minute party in a 425 degree oven, things were shaping up nicely and a fragrant golden loaf emerged.

The first cut was ever-so satisfying–I could tell by the way the knife sliced through the loaf that both crust and crumb were tender and moist and light.

It’s hard to describe exactly what signals my taste buds sent to my brain when I nibbled at the first slice, but they were numerous and delightful. The milk, honey, butter and salt were in perfect balance in a toned-down-kettle-corn kind of way, while the yeastiness and the slightly nutty semolina provided a lovely flavor framework, not to mention a very pleasing texture. It was rich without being overwhelming, and moist without being dense. If I cut out the majority of the sweetener, this dough would make a very good base for an herbed bread, or perhaps dinner rolls. This bread is definitely one that I will be making again.

Thank you, Bob’s Red Mill! More flour experiments to come…