Enough of all that.
All that? You know what I mean. All that out there. Enough of it.
Back to. . . bread. When I can't figure out how this world works, I always go back to what I know. And one of the things I know and love is bread. Also, uniquely, it's something that everyone loves, understands, and needs (in the "daily bread" sense).
A dear and thoughtful friend sent me a baker's couche for my birthday - it's this wonderful linen cloth used to make those fabulously crusty baguettes. Once your dough has been kneaded, risen once, and shaped into that baton-like shape we all know and love, you tuck the shaped dough into the folds of the couche for their final rise ("proof"). Something about the support of the folded linen and the yeasty, floury history of the cloth you never wash creates the perfect baguette.
(Side note: while a baker's couche is lovely, you can just as well use folded dishtowels for your proofing loaves - that was my go-to for a long time)
Thanks to the lovely folks at Saveur magazine, I discovered a four-hour baguette recipe that turns out three beautiful loaves, adapted for the at-home baker (those stunning 24-30 inch long traditional loaves don't fit in the home oven, nor do our ovens produce the steam required to delay crust formation long enough for the loaves to fully rise).
Adapted from Saveur magazine
1 1/2 cups (12 oz) tap water, heated to 115 degrees
1 tsp. active dry yeast
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Canola oil, for greasing bowl
1. Whisk together water and yeast in a large bowl; let sit until yeast is foamy, about 10 minutes. Add flour, and stir with a fork until dough forms and all flour is absorbed; let dough sit to allow flour to hydrate, about 20 minutes. Add salt; transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Transfer dough ball to a lightly greased bowl; cover bowl with plastic wrap, and place bowl in a cold oven (I turn the oven light on to warm things up a bit). Let dough rest until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
2. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and shape into an 8″ x 6″ rectangle. Fold the 8″ sides toward the middle, then fold the shorter sides toward the center. Return dough, seam side down, to bowl. Cover with plastic again, and return to oven; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
3. Remove bowl with dough from oven, and place a roasting pan on the bottom rack of oven; position another rack above with a baking stone. Put a kettle of water on to boil.
4. Heat oven to 475°. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and cut into three equal pieces; shape each piece into a 14″ rope. Thoroughly flour a couple of dishtowels, creased and folded for three loaves; place ropes, evenly spaced, in folds of the towels. Lift towels between ropes to form pleats, creating supports for the loaves. Cover loosely with plastic wrap; let sit until it doubles in size, about 50 minutes.
5. Uncover; flatten towels to space out loaves. Using a sharp razor or knife, slash the top of each baguette at a 30–degree angle in four spots; each slash should be about 4″ long. Slide/roll the loaves from the towels to a peel/rimless baking sheet and slide onto the pre-heated baking stone; use a spray bottle filled with water to briefly and thoroughly spritz the loaves (so we can get a beautiful rise and a gorgeous crust). Pour boiling water from the kettle into the pre-heated roasting pan (this produces steam that lets the loaves rise fully before a crust forms) and quickly close the oven door, retaining as much heat in the oven as possible (that initial blast of heat is important for the loaves to rise). Bake the baguettes until darkly browned and crisp, about 30 minutes; cool before serving (or don't, but beware, you will eat the whole loaf).
When I pulled the loaves out of the oven they were crackling. Is there any better sound than that of a bread that is so bursting with yeast and heat that it is cracking and pushing against its own crust?
I'll be honest. I had my doubts. I did not think it was possible to achieve that perfect balance of crunchy crust and soft, chewy inside at home. I thought it best left to the French (the jury's still out). But, heavens, did I surprise myself. There's nothing like tearing open a warm baguette, smearing it with a pat of butter - maybe a wedge of sharp cheese, a nice piece of apple, and a glass of your best wine. Bliss.
P.S. For the past few years, my sister and I have run the Bastille Day race here in Chicago. I'll never forget the geriatric gentleman plodding along the course, with his baguette raised high, sporting a t-shirt with these words, "Make Baguettes, Not War!" This makes total sense to me.