A friend of ours – hello Nigel – recently returned from a holiday in France where he and his family had enjoyed long lazy lunches in the sunshine. On returning to a slightly damper and greyer Cornwall they decided to recreate a favourite French lunch in order to prolong that holiday feeling.
It is really easy to find great French cheeses or even to source their British counterparts (I love Cornish brie and camembert) and every deli worth its salt will stock at least one wonderful pate but Nigel really struggled to find an authentic baguette. I can sympathise – over the years I’ve had soggy, underbaked pain de campagne and baguettes so crisp they are all crust and no bread.
Our own love affair with baguettes began on a family camping trip to Brittany back in 1989. Each morning we would walk down to the shop to buy freshly baked bread and Madame would squeal with delight as our daughters, then aged 3 and 18 months, would each greet her with a very proud and serious “Bonjour Madame, comment ca va?” We would then wend our way back to the tent with each girl clutching a baguette in the vertical position. We had to throw away each end of the loaves as one end would always have been nibbled and the other grazed along the ground.
So when Nigel challenged me to find the perfect baguette recipe I had to accept. Thus started the research and the more I read the more daunted I began to feel. The general consensus of French artisanal bakers is that baguettes cannot be baked at home – domestic ovens are not big enough and something gets lost in the process of making a smaller baguette. With a slightly ironic gallic shrug I resigned myself to baking a less than perfect loaf. Bread also tastes different when baked in traditional stone ovens – I’m afraid I don’t have one but for once my trusty Rayburn might actually be an advantage.
Every recipe I found used exactly the same ingredients – flour, salt, yeast and water – but in such varying quantities and combinations that I didn’t really know where to start. The simplest recipes I found had all been written by English, Australian or American bakers – the more complicated ones were French. I decided that authenticity is probably a complicated business so opted to focus only on the French.
A couple of recipes called for a starter to be made the night before. I know that long slow proving can really improve the flavour of a loaf so figured this was an essential step. Apart from that my recipe is a bit of a mixture of 3 or 4 others that I read. Most recipes call for French bread flour but I confess that I used ordinary strong white bread flour – I don’t know what difference the “real thing” would make but I couldn’t find any locally. I could have, but didn’t, order it on line.
I bought a baguette tin especially for this recipe (actually it is sillicone not tin) and that did the job really well. You can sprinkle a tea towel with flour and fold it to create a cradle for your bread to rise in but I tried this and it sounds easier than it is!
Overall, this recipe is lengthy and time consuming with multiple risings – you need to make the starter the evening before you want to bake the bread and even if you start early next day it will be mid-afternoon before you can eat your bread. As I’m used to making soda bread (40 mins from weighing to eating) this seems excessive for a regular bake.
So was it worth it? I loved the research and enjoyed the baking and the eating! My bread was not as good as an authentic French baguette (but they come accompanied by a large serving of sunshine and lazy afternoons) but it was much better than anything I have bought here in the UK. As always – the only way to judge for yourself is to give it a go.
Over to you Nigel…
Makes three 15” baguettes
4 fluid ounces / 120 ml cool water
1/16 tsp Fast Action Bread Yeast (yes just one sixteenth of a teaspoon)
4 ¼ oz / 120g Strong White Bread Flour
1 tsp Fast Action Bread Yeast
8 fluid ounces / 240 ml Lukewarm Water
15 oz / 420g Strong White Bread Flour
1 ½ tsp salt
Day 1 Make the starter
Mix the yeast with the water in a medium sized bowl and stir a few times.
Mix in the flour to give a soft dough. Cover and set aside to rest for 14 hours at room temperature. The best time time to do this is the evening before you want to make the bread.
The starter should be well risen and bubbly. If by any chance it is not then your yeast is probably no longer active and it’s time to buy some more!.
Mix the yeast with the water in a large bowl and stir a few times.
Add the flour, salt and all of the starter and mix well until a dough is formed. This amount of water should be enough so be patient but you may need a little more. (Apparently you need more water in winter or in a very dry climate!)
Tip the dough onto a work surface and knead well for about 5 minutes until smooth and pliant.
You can of course do all of this in a food mixer using a dough hook.
Place the dough in a very lightly greased bowl, cover with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave to rise for 3 hours. After the first hour has passed gently deflate and turn the dough, re-cover and leave once again to rise. Repeat after the second hour has passed.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface and cut into three, equally sized pieces. Shape each piece into a rough oval and flatten it out with your palm. Cover with lightly oiled cling film and leave to rest for 15 minutes.
Fold each piece of dough in half lengthways and seal with the heel of your hand. Flatten out a little and repeat.
With the seam side down, cup your fingers and gently roll each piece of dough into a sausage shape approximately 15” long.
Place each dough “sausage” into the wells of a baguette tin.*
Cover with lighly oiled cling film and leave to rise for around 1 ½ hours until risen and puffy.
Towards the end of the rising time pre-heat the oven to 230 C /450 F /Gas Mark 8
Use a sharp knife to make three long, diagonal slashes in each baguette.
Spritz well with warm water which will help your baguettes to develop a really crispy crust.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until your baguettes are a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Baguettes are best eaten on the day they are made but you can re-crisp them in a hot oven if necessary.
*If you don’t have a baguette tin you can do the final rising in the folds of a floured tea towel – when the dough is fully risen gently roll it from the cloth to a flat baking sheet.
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