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October 15, 2007

My baguette adventures

A few weeks ago, challenged by a Slowtalk message board conversation where a few people didn't think it could be done, I decided to see if I could make a good French baguette. I'd tried before, with very mediocre results (pale, dense loaves that tasted OK but resembled baguettes only by being long and narrow).

I did some reading, online and from my books on breadmaking, watched a video demonstration of technique, bought organic King Arthur bread flour, then made my first batch using this recipe. I followed the recipe instructions closely, changing only the oven temperature, which I started at 500 and reduced to 450 after a few minutes of baking. My oven seems to run a little cool.

This is how it looked when it was first shaped and ready for the final proofing. The dough started sticky but was very easy to handle by the time it was ready for shaping. I placed the loaves on parchment paper on top of my baguette pan, then covered and refrigerated overnight before baking.

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This is how they appeared fresh out of the oven. They smelled wonderful and crackled as the crust cooled.

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And finally, here's the crumb.

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I was thrilled! It looked good, but it tasted even better. The crust was crisp and full of flavor, the crumb was light and airy.

I declared it a success, but could I repeat it?

Two days ago I started the sponge for another batch and baked it this morning. The only difference was that I was interrupted by visitors while shaping the loaves, so two did some initial rising before refrigeration, and the third was deflated again and shaped an hour or so later. The third one was much easier to shape and turned out longer than the first two.

Success again! Here's the bread whole. I don't really like the little peaks along the slash lines. The single-edge razor I used this time (just a serrated knife the first time) made deeper slashes, but caught and dragged leaving these little peaks. (My official King Arthur lame has been ordered and should be here any day. Surely it will solve that problem!)

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The second batch has an even airier crumb.

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Ahh, but how does it compare to an Acme baguette (the best commercially available baguette in this area)?

Here they are, side by side, Acme still in the bag. The color is about the same, but Acme has that nice dusting of flour, and the slashes are much cleaner. Obviously, it's longer, but my oven wouldn't handle that.

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Here they are, cut. Acme is on the right. The crumb texture is very similar, but the Acme is whiter, I have no idea why.

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Now for the taste test. The taste is so close that I literally couldn't detect a difference. The crumb texture is the same. The Acme crust is just a tiny bit crisper, and it's evenly browned and crisp all the way around. There's a slight difference in the appearance of the crust that I suspect may have something to do with my spritzing the dough too enthusiastically just before it went into the oven.

My two loaves that had extra rising time and became fatter are not as browned on the sides, probably because they're too close together in that three-loaf baguette pan. You can see it in this photo.

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I hate to give up the use of that pan, because it's so easy to just place the loaves there when they're shaped and never have to handle them again. Without the pan, I worry about deflating the unbaked baguettes or worse trying to roll them onto a peel and then off again onto my baking stone (worse would be a big lump of dough splattered on the floor or oven door).

Maybe next time, I'll experiment by just using the two outside grooves on the pan and see what happens if I freeze the third loaf unbaked and bake it later. Three baguettes is about two baguettes too many at one time for the two of us anyway.

Is it worth it?

Yes, it's worth it to me to do this at home, because it's really very easy, and it's a 10- or 15-minute drive to the only store in the area that sells Acme. And because I would still like to get it exactly right. However, if that lovely little French bakery I've always wanted moves in within a 10-minute walk, my baguette-baking days will be over!

November 5, 2007

Obsessing over baguettes

OK, enough is enough. Over the past four days, I've put 8 (small) baguettes in the freezer, and we've eaten most of four.

I'm sure I could make 60 more and continue to improve my results, but I've got to stop eating so much bread!

Here's what I've learned.

For me, without professional skills in handling the dough, that little three-slot baguette pan is essential. I can place the newly formed loaves in the pan, let them rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator, and put the pan into the oven without ever having to handle the loaves again and risk deflating them (except while slashing the dough--more about that later).

High heat is essential. The recipe I used calls for baking at 425. I heat the oven to 550 for long enough to make sure my baking stone is thoroughly heated, then reduce it to 450 only after the first five minutes of baking, when I'm through messing around trying to create steam and opening and closing the oven door.

I'm not so worried about finding the "perfect" flour anymore. My first batches were made with an organic bread flour from King Arthur, then I used up the Pillsbury Harvest King bread flour I had in the cupboard, then I used Stone-Buhr bread flour. Each flour seemed to need differing amounts of water. The KA made a very soft, pliable dough with one cup of water, and the Stone-Buhr needed another tablespoon or so to make a much firmer dough. But the end results just weren't that different. I think the Stone-Buhr may be my favorite.

Since I made bread four days in a row, I saved about a tablespoon of each day's starter and added it to the next day's starter. Each day's bread seemed to have more flavor than the day before--I think this is why.

Steam in the oven is much better than mist on the bread itself as it goes into the oven. I bought a small cast iron skillet to dedicate to this task, and I got much better oven spring when I preheated it with the oven until it was very hot, then added a little water to create steam when I put the bread in. The little pan won't be much use for anything else after being boiled dry over and over again, but it was cheap (about $8 on Amazon) and I'll save it for this.

Slashing the loaves has in many ways turned out to be the most difficult part of the whole process. I first tried a serrated knife, then a single-edge razor blade, then I was sure that a special tool designed for the purpose would be the answer. With all three, I had the same problem. It was HARD to cut the dough, I was pushing down on the blade and deflating the dough as I went, and the blade caught and dragged through the dough instead of making a smooth cut.

Finally, just before the slashing the last batch, I pulled out The Breadmaker's Apprentice and read Peter Reinhart's description of how to do it right (as I should have done before I started!). OK, use just the point, don't push down, let the blade do the work. And, I discovered this morning, go slowly and don't try to rush it. Much, much better. Pretty slashes, fluffier loaves.

This bread dough doesn't need any additional flour when you shape it, but I've always liked the look of a dusting of flour, so I tried that on one batch. It looked OK, but it didn't really contribute anything. Then, on today's batch, I rolled each loaf in semolina after shaping. That may not be correct for a classic baguette, but I love it. It adds a little bit of gold to the color of the crust, and a subtle additional crunch and sweetness to the crust. Delicious!

That's it for now. The recipe is simple, success is all about technique (and equipment). And a good home-baked baguette is almost as good as a fresh-baked baguette in France.

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