Sweet French Bread

This recipe describes the basic procedure for making all free form, French bread-style loaves, that is, for breads made with variations of these ingredients and not baked in pans.

At the bakery, we have to weigh our dough to insure that we do not sell short-weight loaves. Home bakers have no such impositions, but might find it useful to know that one loses about 2 to 3 ounces by weight in the baking: 27 ounces of dough will yield a 24-ounce (-pound) loaf. Smaller loves lose less weight. The basic recipe produces 54 ounces of dough.

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Ingredients

  • cups of unbleached bread flour
  • cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt, preferably sea salt
  • teaspoons instant yeast or 2 teaspoons active dry yeast1
  • cups water
  • Polenta, cornmeal, or semolina for sprinkling on the pans

Method

Mixing and Kneading

Mix all the ingredients except the polenta in a bowl (reserving a little water for adjustments) until the mixture can be formed into a ball. Sprinkle a little flour on the counter, turn out the dough, and knead it for about 10 to 12 minutes or until the dough is tacky but not sticky and has a nice elasticity.

Clean the bowl and return the dough to it. Cover with either a damp towel or plastic wrap, or put the bowl into a plastic bag. Leave the dough out at room temperature to rise for about 1½ hours. The dough will have doubled in size. Punch it down, form it into a ball, return it to the bowl, and allow it to rise again for 1 to 1½ hours, until doubled in size.

Forming Loaves

Gently cut the dough into 2 pieces if you are making rounds or loaves or four pieces if you are making baguettes.

To make loaves or baguettes, roll out each piece of dough into a long rectangle. Fold it in thirds, from top to bottom, and roll it out again, keeping the seam on the bottom. Fold the rectangle of dough in thirds again, crimping the seam with your fingers so that it will not open up. The goal is to create a firm surface tension that allows the bread to rise without spreading out sideways. If the dough becomes too tough to roll out, allow it to rest, covered, for about 3 to 5 minutes. This lets the gluten relax and then the dough should be more compliant. If it begins to dry out, spray with water.

Sprinkle a baking pan or French-bread molds (curved metal cylinders) with polenta, cornmeal, or semolina to prevent the dough from sticking and to give a nice crackle to the bottom of the loaf. Do not oil the pan, as this will brown the bottom of the loaf prematurely. Place the baguette of flute, seam-side down, on the pan.

To Make Rounds

If making rounds, gently press out the dough into a long rectangle and fold it up in thirds as if making loaves. Before rolling it out again, turn the “parcel” of dough so that the folds are running vertically and the open ends are horizontal and parallel with your rolling pin. Press out the dough again into a rectangle. Fold it up in thirds again, form top to bottom, and create a ball of dough by bending the parcel round so that the 2 open ends meet underneath and can be crimped together to make one seam. Hold the ball in your hand, smooth it out, and pinch the open ends together to seal them at the bottom. This bottom should sit on the baking pan on the top of a good-sized sprinkling of polenta.

After forming the loaves, space them far enough apart to allow room for rising, and cover the pans with either a damp cloth or plastic wrap. Allow the loaves approximately 1 hour to rise at room temperature or put them in the refrigerator to rise over night.

Baking

When you are ready to bake, slash the tops of the loaves either diagonally (3 slashes are usually sufficient) or, for the round loaves, in a tic-tac-toe or an asterisk pattern. A razor blade or serrated knife will work well.

Spray the loaves with cold water and place them in a preheated 450°F. oven (400°F. in a convection oven). After 2 minutes, quickly spray them again. Two minutes later, spray once more. Two minutes later, give another spray. You may want to rotate the pans 180 degrees after the final spray, if the oven is baking unevenly. About 10 minutes after the last spray look at the loaves. If they appear to be golden and done, turn off the oven and allow the loaves to cook in a cooling oven for 10 more minutes. Total cooking time is 26 to 30 minutes for baguettes and up to 40 minutes for larger loaves. Cooking time varies according to both the size of the loaves and variations in ovens. Remove the bread from the oven, allow it to cool for between 20 and 45 minutes, and serve.

Baking Bricks or Tiles

You can approximate the effect of hearth baking by preheating baking bricks or tiles and sliding the dough onto the bricks with a wooden oven peel or a long-nosed metal spatula (or on baking parchment). Bake as indicated, remembering the sprays. Round loaves, because of their increased bulk, will need 5 or 10 minutes longer to bake and to cool down than will baguettes.

When the Crackle is Lost

If you want to restore the crackle to a crust that has lost it, which usually occurs a few hours after baking, mist the bread with cold water and put in a hot oven (400°F.) for 4 to 5 minutes. Serve the bread while it is hot but do not expect to use this trick on the same loaf twice.

1 Proof active dry yeast first in 4 tablespoons lukewarm water.
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