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!