Last fall I read “French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure” by Mireille Guiliano. It is a fabulous book! Her writing is clever and witty as she takes the guilt out of eating, while teaching reasonable moderation and thoughtful food practices instead.
In the chapter entitled “Bread & Chocolate” she encourages eating both. YES! However, she also stresses the importance of eating freshly made foods without preservatives. Because “French women don’t eat Wonder Bread.”
Granted, for American women, it isn’t quite as easy to walk down any neighborhood street and pick up a fresh baguette. But we can learn to bake them. And it is surprisingly simple. It just takes patience and practice.
I was inspired after finishing this book to begin baking my own baguettes. I purchased a french baguette pan from Williams Sonoma. After several tries and a few modifications, I developed a recipe that combines Guiliano’s recipe in her book and the recipe on the pan packaging. Unfortunately the Williams Sonoma french baguette pan pictured is no longer available, but you can purchase a similar pan from any kitchen store, like this one from Sur La Table.
You can certainly make this bread without a French baguette pan. I tried making in on a regular baking sheet to compare. When sampled side by side, my family definitely preferred the baguettes made on the specialized pan. The perforations in the French baguette pan promote air circulation and allow excess moisture to escape. This does result in a better crust and more airy bread. But homemade French bread on a baking sheet, fresh from the oven, is still better than any bread you’ll pick up at the grocery store. So make some this weekend regardless of what kind of pan you have!
CRUSTY FRENCH BAGUETTES
- 2 cups warm water (110F)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 package active dry yeast or 2-1/4 teaspoons
- 5 to 5-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (I prefer King Arthur’s Flour for this recipe)
- 2-1/2 teaspoons salt, (I prefer kosher salt for this recipe)
- 2 cups hot water in a small pan
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon cold water
- Pinch of salt
- In a small bowl combine warm water and sugar. (Water temperature is important in any recipe using yeast. Too hot or too cold will ruin the final product. If you are new to bread making, use a kitchen thermometer to check your water temp.) Stir until sugar dissolves. Add the yeast and stir gently to mix. Let stand for 10 minutes, until foamy.
- In an electric mixer with a dough hook, combine 4 cups of flour and the salt and mix on low speed until combined. Slowly add the yeast mixture and beat just until incorporated, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat for 10 minutes, adding more flour a 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough is elastic and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. OR if you do not have a stand mixer, combine the flour and the salt with a whisk. Slowly add yeast mixture and mix with a large wooden spoon or rubber spatula until just combined. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes, adding flour 1/4 cup at a time until the dough is sticky and smooth.
- Place dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap. Place bowl in a warm, draft-free place and let it rise for approximately 1 hour, or until double in bulk.
- Punch down dough and turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for one minute.
- Divide dough into four even balls. Roll out each ball into the shape of a baguette, pinch ends to make them tapered.
- Transfer the baguettes to a lightly greased baking pan. Cover loosely with a tea towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free place. Let rise for 30 minutes. (My baguette pan can only cook two loaves at a time. So I shape half of the dough into two loaves, and leave the other half as one ball in the covered bowl. I let the 2 loaves and the ball of dough rise for 30 minutes. While the first 2 loaves are baking, I shape the remaining ball into two baguettes and place them on a lightly floured tea towel, cover them, and let them rise a third time. Then I continue with the recipe when the pan is available. Or if I’m pressed for time, I’ll prepare all four loves at the same time, and bake two in the baguette pan and two on a baking sheet at the same time. I put the loaves on the baking sheet on the rack above the loaves in the baking sheet because the bread bottoms tend to burn easier on the baking sheet than in the baguette pan, and my oven is hottest on the bottom.)
- While loaves are rising, heat oven to 45oF. Place 2 cups of hot water in a small pan and place it in the oven. (The steam created in the oven will produce a better bread crust.)
- Mix egg, 1 teaspoon cold water, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl with a fork or a small whisk. Brush over loaves just before baking. Slash baguettes 3-5 times diagonally across the top of the loaves with a sharp knife.
- Bake the baguettes in the oven (with the pan of water) for 15 minutes. And then lower the temperature to 400F and bake for 5-10 minutes more, until golden brown. Bread should sound hollow when tapped.
- If using a baguette pan, cool in the pan set on a wire cooking rack. If using a baking pan, transfer from the baking pan to a wire rack to cool, otherwise the bottom will turn slightly soggy.