Friday, February 29, 2008
Daring Bakers - French bread
I love making bread. Although it requires an investment of time and planning on the cook's behalf, it's surprisingly easy to make. I love the simple chemistry of bread; that you can combine flour, water and yeast - ingredients that are quite unappetising on their own - with some good kneading and time for proving and come up with a wonderful, crusty loaf of bread. A lot of people are put off by yeast and it can be temperamental and formidable at first. But the more you use it, the friendlier yeast becomes as you get to know its quirks and foibles and how bread should look and act in each stage.
So I was extremely pleased that this month's Daring Baker hosts, Breadchick Mary and Sara, selected Julia Child's classic French bread as this month's challenge. I've heard of Julia Child's name in relation to cookery writing but nothing else and I've never read any of her work (my inspiration has come from Australian and English cookery writers). Some quick research established that Julia was an American cookery writer who died in 2004. She spent many years in Paris and her cookbooks and TV shows influenced a generation of American cooks, particularly in relation to French cookery.
In their introduction to this month's challenge, Breadchick Mary and Sara said they both fell in love with the idea of cooking by watching Julia on TV. The classic French bread recipe, an "eighteen-page love poem to French bread", came from volume 2 of Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1970. Breadchick Mary and Sara chose to include all of Julia's useful instructions, as well as the recipe.
It was a delight to be introduced to Julia's cooking but I did find the lengthy recipe and notes overwhelming at first. I had to read the recipe four or five times to get the gist of it and even then I kept it close by for quick reference as I made the bread.
The ingredients for French bread are simple: yeast, flour, salt and tepid water. But the investment of time is enormous, far more than I've ever devoted to bread-making before. It took me an entire day to make (although I didn't need to be hovering around the kitchen for the entire time, as most of it involved leaving the bread alone to prove). But the end result was definitely worth the time and effort.
A basic summary of the recipe is that the yeast (I used dried) is activated in tepid water and then stirred into flour and salt with some more tepid water. I've discovered a new brand of specialised flours (cake, bread, pizza etc) at the supermarket and am finding them excellent. This dough is a little softer and stickier than other bread doughs I've made. It's kneaded for 5-10 minutes, then set aside to prove for 3-5 hours, or until tripled in volume. We're having an unseasonally cool end to summer and I found this part took the full five hours. The bread is then kneaded again once more, quickly to release the gas bubbles and set aside to prove again for up to one-and-a-half hours. Then the bread is cut and shaped (eg into baguettes, batards, rolls etc - I chose to make a large round loaf called pain de boules), set aside to prove (again for up to one-and-a-half hours), then baked in a hot oven for up to 25 minutes. French bread is not baked in a pan, so it is vital that it is shaped in such a way that it will hold its shape when baked. After baking, an important step is to let the loaf cool for up to three hours to allow the crumb to compose itself. According to Julia, if you cut the loaf too quickly, it will be doughy and the crust soft.
The full recipe contained a lot of instructions and useful explanations about what was happening to the bread as it proved. It also was extremely specific in terms of equipment used (eg yeast had to be dissolved in tepid water in a glass measure and equipment requirements included canvas sheets for the pastry to rise on and a stiff piece of plywood to unmould the bread). Although this was interesting, on reflection I found the recipe too detailed for me. The reason I felt the need to keep referring to it was because of the detailed instructions; I wanted to ensure that I was getting it right. I now realise that these instructions are so detailed because they are for people who've never made bread before - quite rightly so, as you need these details if it's the first time you're making bread. But for someone who has kneaded bread many times before, reading the kneading instructions made me feel as if it was a new technique. However, this is just a small quibble, and I will be far less reliant on the recipe next time I make this bread.
I also admit that I didn't use a canvas sheet for the rising (I just rubbed flour into a cotton teatowel), I didn't use plywood to unmould the bread (I flipped it gently from the teatowel into my baking tray) and I didn't read the specification for using the glass measure until after I'd poured my yeast into tepid water in a plastic bowl. However, none of these slight deviations seemed to harm or make a difference to the final result.
This loaf of bread was the best bread I've ever made - indeed, I'm immodest enough to say that it is one of the best breads I've ever eaten. It had a soft but chewy texture, similar to sourdough, and was quite addictive. Even though we were ready to go to bed by the time the bread had cooled, we couldn't resist cutting some to try and we ended up demolishing half the loaf! As pointed out in the recipe notes, French bread doesn't contain any preservatives and is best eaten on the day it's made. I had a few slices left over by the next night and they had gone rock hard, so I blitzed them in the food processor and they made a great crumb crust for fresh fish.
Thank you to Breadchick Mary and Sara for choosing such an excellent recipe. I will definitely be making this again and I think it will become one of my favourite bread recipes. I also enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Julia Child and intend to do some more exploring of her cooking in the future.