Louis la Vache moved from California to France to learn to become un boulanger, a baker. He has posted a number of recipes, most of them pastry or dessert-type items, but he has neglected one of those things we most associate with la table française: le pain - bread! Louis will address the subject of pain français by beginning with what we consider to be the quintessential pain français - la baguette.
The name baguette originated in the XVIII ème siècle and it derived from le mote Italien "bacchetto," the diminuitive of "bacchio", from the Latin "baculum," staff.
Simply made from flour, water, salt and leavening, la baguette has an essential role in the French meal. We so much associate la baguette as being the archetypal pain français that we are surprised to learn that it is actually a relatively recent addition to la table française: la baguette was only introduced in the 1920s!
La baguette accounts for 80% of all bread consumed in France. Ten billion baguettes are produced each year in France. Although the consumption of bread has steadily declined in France (until very recently) since the XIX ème siècle, consumption of per-captia today nontheless averages half a baguette per person per day. Average weight for a baguette is 250 grams, just short of 9 ounces. Une baguette does not preserve well and has to be consumed very rapidly. This is because the thin, cylindrical shape of une baguette gives it a high ratio of crust to crumb, thus une baguette dries out very quickly. (All that is not crust is crumb.)
The price of bread in France has long been politically sensitive. It was for this reason that Baron Haussmann, while rebuilding Paris under Napoléon III in the XIX ème siècle, chose to fund the massive urban renewal project by placing a special tax on flour rather than directly taxing bread. It was a brilliant move on Haussmann's part. He knew that Parisians would never tolerate a direct tax on bread, but he also knew that the high per-capita consumption of bread (at the time 900 grams - almost two pounds - per person per day) was a sure means of funding the modernization of Paris. Thus the hidden tax on flour. So, bread provided the "bread" to modernize Paris!
The price of une baguette was set by the government until 1978. The regulated price of baguettes led bakers, under pressure of costs, to cut corners on baking them and quality declined in the XX ème siècle until the price control was lifted. The controlled price of baguettes brought about mass-produced "pain industriel." The poor quality of the price-controlled baguette was as much a factor in the declining per-capita consumption of bread in France as was changing diet habits.
When the price control was removed, boulangers such as Lionel Poilâne and Basil Kamir led a renaissance in bread baking. This renewal has helped boost daily bread consumption from its XX ème siècle low , though it is still far from the 900 grams per-captia daily of Haussmann's time.
Commercial yeast (such as the little yellow envelopes of Fleishmann's yeast that are so familiar in the U.S.) is also a modern invention. Before the advent of commercial yeast, boulangers had to rely on a starter to provide the leavening in the bread. In France this starter is known as levain, and is grown from the naturally-occurring yeast in the flour. The cost pressures of the price-controlled baguette forced bakers to adopt commercial yeast as the leavening agent because it speeded production. With price controls off, Poilâne, Basil Kamir and other boulangers leading the renaissance of quality pain have made the baguette au levain popular again. Une baguette au levain, with its long, cool fermentation time is a bread with a taste that cannot be equalled by une baguette made with commercial yeast.
Because it takes some time and patience (but no real work) to begin a levain, Louis la Vache will give you une recette pour une baguette made with commercial yeast for now, but will show you how to build un levain and bake bread with it in follow-up posts to this one.
Notes: Allow seven hours total time to make this recette. The recette calls for cake flour in additon to regular flour because flour in France is of lower protein than flour in the U.S. Cake flour is a "softer," lower protein flour, so this will help you achieve a more authentic loaf. To obtain that classic crisp crust, use a baking stone. The stone plus steam will give you the crust you want. This recipe produces three loaves.
1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup, (2 ounces) very warm water ( 105 to 115º F)
3 cups, (13 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup, (4 1/2 ounces) cake flour (see note)
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon, (10 1/2 ounces) cool water ( 75º F)
1. Combine the yeast and the warm water in a small bowl and stir with a fork to dissolve the yeast. Let stand for 3 minutes.
2. Combine the flours and salt in a large bowl.
3. Pour the cool water and the yeast mixture over the flour, and mix with your fingers to form a shaggy mass.
4. Move the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 4 minutes. It should be supple and resilient, but not too smooth at this point. Let the dough rest on the work surface for 20 minutes, covered with plastic wrap or a light towel.
5. Knead the dough for 6 to 8 minutes. Don't overknead it: The dough should be smooth, stretchy, and resilient.
6. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it in the bowl to coat with oil, and cover it with plastic wrap.
7. Let rise at room temperature (not more than 75 degrees F) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until nearly doubled in volume.
8. Gently deflate the dough and fold it over itself in the bowl. Reshape it into a ball and cover with plastic wrap.
9. Let it rise for 1 1/4 hours or until it has nearly doubled again.
10. Gently deflate the dough again, reshape into a round, cover, and let rise for about 1 hour.
11. Place the dough on a very lightly floured surface and divide it into 3 equal pieces (about 10 ounces each).
12. Gently stretch one piece into a rectangle, leaving some large bubbles in the dough.
13. Fold the top third down and the bottom third up as if you were folding a business letter.
14. Now form the loaf into a log by rolling the dough over from left to right and sealing the seam with the heel of your palm. 15. Fold the dough over about 1/ 3 of the way each time, seal the length of the loaf, then repeat. You want to gently draw the skin tight over the surface of the baguette while leaving some air bubbles in the dough.
16. Seal the seam, being careful not to tear the skin of the dough or deflate its airy structure.
17. Set aside on the work surface to relax before elongating it, and repeat the shaping process with remaining pieces of dough.
18. Now elongate each baguette, starting with the first one you shaped, by rolling it back and forth on the work surface.
19. Begin with both hands over the center of the loaf and work them out to the ends until the loaf reaches the desired length. (Don't get carried away, or the baguettes won't fit in your oven!)
20. Place the finished loaves on a peel or upside down baking sheet lined with parchment paper and generously sprinkled with cornmeal or on a baguette pan.
21. Cover the loaves with a floured cloth and let rise for 30 to 40 minutes until the loaves are slightly plump but still not doubled in volume. The final rise is short, because you want the baguettes to be slightly under proofed; this will give them a better oven spring, resulting in loaves with a light, airy crumb and more flared cuts.
22. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 500º F. Place a baking stone in the oven to preheat, and place an empty water pan directly under the stone. Use a very sharp razor blade to make 3 to 5 slashes, depending on the length of your loaves, on the top of each baguette.
23. The blade should be held at a 30 degree angle to the loaf so that the cuts pop open in the oven. Be careful not to press down too hard, or you may deflate the loaves.
24. Using a plant sprayer, mist the loaves.
25. Gently slide the loaves onto the preheated stone, or place the baguette mold in the oven.
26. Pour 1 cup of very hot water into the water pan and quickly close the oven door.
27. After 1 minute, mist the loaves and oven walls 6 to 8 times and close the door. After 2 more minutes, spray the loaves and the oven walls again.
28. Bake for 12 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400º F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes longer until the loaves are golden brown and crisp. Move them to a rack to cool.
This recette is also posted at The Frog Blog of Louis la Vache
Confessions of a French Baker: Breadmaking Secrets, Tips, and Recipes