Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Making baguettes

As I’ve said in a previous post, making bread (the kind that needs to be kneaded and rise) still totally intimidates me, but J. has gotten quite good at it. And last weekend, he made baguettes. I’ll give you the recipe and the technique, even though I almost feel like placing a disclaimer along the lines of “Don’t try this at home!” Or at least, this may not be the bread to try if you’ve never made bread before. But it was a fascinating process to watch nonetheless. This recipe is from Baking Illustrated.

We planned to eat the baguette for dinner on Sunday, so J. started making it on Saturday a bit after lunchtime – that’s how long it can take. Note that, unlike other breads, this bread first has dry dough that is kneaded with the addition of water to make it hold together (other breads have sticky dough that is kneaded with the addition of flour). Also, the dough is “crashed” against the counter to help it absorb the water properly – now that was both fun and easy. Watch the video I made! :) Please note that J. cut the dough in three pieces instead of two, due to the smaller size of our baking stone. The pan of water in the oven makes for a crispier crust.

1/8 tsp instant yeast
¾ cup warm water (about 75 °F)
6 oz (1 cup + 3 tbsp) lower-protein unbleached all-purpose flour

½ tsp instant yeast
½ cup water (about 110 °F) + 2 tsp water if needed
10 oz (2 cups) lower-protein unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt

1 egg white
1 tbsp water

For the sponge: Combine the yeast, water and flour in a medium bowl and stir together with a wooden spoon to form a thick batter. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and punch a couple of holes in the plastic wrap with a paring knife; let stand at room temperature. After 5 to 6 hours, the sponge should be almost doubled in size and pitted with tiny bubbles. Refrigerate overnight, 12 to 14 hours; the surface will show a slight depression in the center, indicating the drop. The sponge is now ready to use.

For the dough: Add the yeast and 6 tbsp of the water to the sponge. Stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the water is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and continue mixing with a wooden spoon until a scrappy ball forms. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead by hand, adding drops of water if necessary, until the dry bits are absorbed into the dough, about 2 minutes. (The dough will feel dry and tough.)

Stretch the dough into a rough 8-by-6-inch rectangle, make indentations in the dough with your fingertips, sprinkle with 1 tbsp of the water, fold the edges of the dough up toward the center to enclose the water, and pinch the edges to seal. Knead the dough lightly, about 30 seconds. (The dough will feel slippery as some water escapes, but will become increasingly pliant as the water is absorbed.) Begin “crashing” the dough by flinging it against the work surface several times. (This process helps the dough absorb water more readily.) Knead and crash the dough alternately until it is soft and supple and the surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes. Stretch the dough again into a rough 8-by-6-inch rectangle and make indentations with your fingertips; sprinkle the dough with the salt and the remaining 1 tbsp of water. Repeat folding and sealing the edges and “crashing” and kneading until the dough is once again soft and supple and the surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes. If the dough still feels tough and nonpliant, knead in the additional 2 tsp of water.

Determine if the dough is adequately kneaded by performing a windowpane test: the dough should be stretched until it is nearly translucent. If the dough tears before stretching thin, knead 5 minutes longer and test again.

Gather the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 30 minutes, then remove the dough from the bowl and knead gently to deflate, about 10 seconds; gather into a ball, return to the bowl, and replace the plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.

Decompress the dough by gently pushing a fist in the center of the dough toward the bottom of the bowl; turn the dough onto a work surface. With a dough scraper, divide the dough into two 12-oz pieces. Working with one piece of dough at a time, covering the second piece with plastic wrap, cup your hands stiffly around the dough and drag it in short half-circular motions toward the edge of the work surface until the dough forms a rough torpedo shape with a taut, rounded surface, about 6 ½ inches long. (As you drag the dough, its tackiness will pull on the work surface, causing the top to scroll down and to the back to create a smooth, taut surface.) Repeat with the second piece of dough. Drape the plastic wrap over the dough on the work surface; let rest 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cover an inverted rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one piece of dough at a time, keeping the second piece covered in plastic wrap, shape the dough: Make an indentation along the length of the dough, with the side of an outstretched hand. Working along the length of the dough, press the thumb of one hand against the indentation while folding and rolling the upper edge of the dough down with the other hand to enclose the thumb. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times until the upper edge meets the lower edge and creates a deep seam. Using your fingertips, press the seam to seal. At this point, the dough will have formed a cylinder about 12 inches long. Roll the dough cylinder seam-side down; gently and evenly roll and stretch the dough until it measures 15 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. Place seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Space the shaped dough pieces about 6 inches apart on the baking sheet. Drape a clean dry kitchen towel over the dough and slide the baking sheet into a large clean plastic bag; seal to close. Refrigerate until the dough has slightly risen, 7 to 10 hours.

To glaze and bake: Adjust one oven rack to the lower-middle position and place a baking stone on the rack. Adjust the other rack to the lowest position and place a small empty baking pan on it. Heat the oven to 500 °F. Remove the baking sheet with the baguettes from the refrigerator and let the baguettes stand covered at room temperature 45 minutes; remove the plastic bag and towel to let the surface of the dough dry and let stand 15 minutes longer. The dough should have risen to almost double in bulk and feel springy to the touch. Meanwhile, bring 1 cup of water to a simmer in a small saucepan on the stovetop. Make the glaze by beating the egg white with the 1 tbsp of water.

With a very sharp knife (blade lightly sprayed with nonstick cooking spray), make five ¼-inch deep diagonal slashes on each baguette. Brush the baguettes with the egg white glaze and mist with water from a clean spray bottle. Working quickly, slide the parchment paper with the baguettes off the baking sheet and onto the hot baking stone. Pour the simmering water into the pan on the bottom rack, being careful to avoid the steam. Bake, rotating the loaves 90 ° after 10 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown, about 5 minutes longer (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loves through the bottom crust should read 205 °F to 210 °F). Transfer to a wire rack and let cool 30 minutes.

These baguettes were absolutely delicious! Note that they should be eaten within 2 hours after they are baked.

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