I can’t figure out why I love to bake bread. Do I simply love the finished product of hot, savory bread right out of the oven? Is it the kneading that releases tension and stress that I so enjoy? Do I respect the length of time it takes to create good bread?
While bread baking takes a lot of time, the process is broken into manageable stages. I often bake over the weekends, prepping a poolish Friday morning or as soon as I get home from work and preparing the dough Saturday morning while I am still groggy in pajamas. Then, I resume my day and forget about it; all the while, the yeast matures and flavors develop. I merely wait while time, temperature, and yeast do the work. And of course, I get some pleasure out of punching around a loaf to add oxygen and activate the yeast (although some bakers might wince at my description of kneading as “punching”).
Here is a simple, classic baguette recipe that I made over the weekend. I suggest you give it a go. Bread baking is far too basic and the reward too great to leave to professional bakers.
Poolish (24 hours):
1 cup spring water at 75 degrees (or just moderately warm)
1/4 teaspoon dry yeast
1 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
Final Dough (6 hours):
1 cup spring water
1/4 teaspoon dry yeast
4 1/4 to 5 1/4 cups all-purpose white flour
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
The day before, make a poolish by combining a cup of water and 1/4 teaspoon of dry yeast in a bowl. Let sit for one minute. Stir with a wooden spoon for one minute until the yeast is dissolved. Add the flour and stir for about 100 strokes, or until gluten strands stick to the side of the bowl when you press the spoon against the bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm, safe place (I often use the top of the fridge) over night.
In the morning, the poolish should be bubbly and doubled in size.
Take one cup of the poolish and transfer it to a new bowl. Discard the remaining poolish. Add to that new bowl a cup of water and 1/4 teaspoon dry yeast, and stir until the poolish breaks up, the ingredients combine, and the mixture begins to foam slightly. Add a tablespoon of sea salt and enough flour (probably 2 cups) to create a thicker dough. Continue mixing with a wooden spoon and adding flour until the mixture is difficult to stir.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 15-17 minutes, adding flour as necessary. There are a couple of ways to test to see if the dough is done. Either press your thumb into the dough and, if the dough springs back and your thumb didn’t leave and indent, you are done. Or, shape the dough into a ball. If the ball does not sag, you can stop kneading. Once the bread is thoroughly kneaded, shape it into a ball. Take some olive oil and oil a bowl. Turn the dough in the bowl to coat it with the oil, and allow it to rise on the top of the fridge for 2 to 3 hours.
Punch down loaf and transfer it to a floured surface. Reshape into a ball. Cut into four equal pieces, and shape each of those into balls. Cover and allow to rest for 35 minutes.
Flatten each ball with the heel of hour hand on a unfloured board. Shape each into a baguette by moving your hands from the center of the dough outward, elongating the dough as you roll and stretch the dough until it becomes as long and narrow as you wish. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to proof for 1 1/2 hours in a warm, draft-free spot.
45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven and baking sheet to 450 degrees. Be sure to place the rack in the center of the oven so that the bread bakes evenly. Using a very sharp, serrated knife, score the loaves by making quick shallow cuts along the surface.
Once the loaves are in the oven, wash your hands and dip your fingers into a cup of water. Splash water with your fingers in the oven to create steam, and quickly close the oven door. Wait three minutes, spray more water, close door, and bake bread for 15 to 20 minutes. Bread is done with the top is a rich caramel color. To test for doneness, remove and hold the loaves upside down. Strike the bottoms firmly with your finger. If the sound is hollow, the bread is done. If not, bake 5 more minutes. Cool 5 minutes before eating. I enjoyed mine with bruchetta and friends. I also suggest freezing any uneaten bread. Baguettes do not save well if left out (even if only for a day).