Baguettes de Campagne

French Country Bread

The French homemaker never makes bread at home. She buys it fresh each day from the local baker in her area. And you may be sure French bakers do not spend seven hours making a batch of bread. Nor do they have special equipment. What they do have are large ovens, often clay lined, and with steam piped into them. These conditions we cannot duplicate in our homes, nor could the French homemaker.

But we can make a loaf of French bread in our everyday kitchens that looks and tastes like the real French bread we all remember. What you do need is a gun-type plastic spray bottle that can be filled with water so that the oven and bread can be sprayed often. This is excellent French bread—do make it. It is even better when frozen and reheated.

Ingredients

Starter

  • 1 ( or 0.6-ounce) cake of yeast
  • cups warm water
  • cups all-purpose flour

Next day

  • 1 teaspoon dry yeast
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons very warm water
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ¾ cup warm water
  • ½ teaspoon soda
  • Cornmeal
  • Melted butter or lard
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 tablespoons cold water

Method

  1. Prepare the starter the night before you plan to make bread. Dissolve yeast in small amount of warm water and then add balance of water. Beat in the flour. Mix this in the bowl you will use to mix the bread. Cover tight and let ferment overnight. (If you really like sour dough, let the starter ferment for 2 or 3 days.)
  2. Next morning dissolve dry yeast and sugar in very warm water (follow package instructions). Let stand until it rises. Add 1 cup of flour and the salt to the starter. Beat 2 minutes. Add another cup of flour and enough of the water to keep the dough a batter. Beat another 2 minutes.
  3. Add soda to the yeast mixture. Stir and add to bowl. Add cups of flour. Beat, and if necessary add more water. The dough should be stiff, yet pliable. The consistency of the dough should be such that when the dough is pinched between the finger and thumb it does not stick. Add more flour or water to make it so. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead. Sprinkle top and underneath the dough with flour.
  4. Cover the dough with a towel and then lay transparent wrap over the towel to keep out the air. The towel is less likely to stick than the wrap. Let dough double in size. Sprinkle cooky sheet with cornmeal.
  5. Be sure dough has doubled when you start to work it; on the counter it is difficult to judge. It is better that the dough rises too long than not long enough. When the dough has doubled, knock the dough down, fold it in half, flatten, and fold in half again. Do this three or four times to trap the air. Then flatten the dough into an oval pancake about 1 inch thick.
  6. Now we are going to remove the outside curves of the oval, which are perfectly shaped loaves of bread. To do this, do not cut with a knife, but use a wooden cutting board, or ½-inch dowel (available at all hardware stores). Stand the board up on its side and press the board down through the dough, about 2 inches in along the long oval sides of the dough and press through to the counter. Then with a table knife cut through the pressed-down dough and separate the loaf from the dough. Make two such loaves, one from each side of the oval of dough. Pinch the cut edges together and place cut side down on the cornmeal and across two corners, leaving the diagonal middle of the pan for the longer loaves.
  7. Pinch the sides of the remaining piece of dough and then press down the center with the cutting board, making two more loaves of bread. Cut apart. Pinch cut edges together. Roll and shape loaves and then place diagonally on the cornmeal-coated cooky sheet. Coat with melted butter or lard.
  8. Let loaves rise, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. With a very sharp, thin knife, make 4 or 5 long cuts, lengthwise of the loaf and about ⅜ inch deep. Preheat oven to425 degrees. Let loaves rise until cuts have flattened out and loaves have doubled.
  9. Beat egg white to a froth. Add water and continue to beat until well mixed. Brush loaves with mixture and put into oven. Bake 15 minutes. Open oven door and spray bread and oven. Reduce heat to 375 degrees. Heat a large, flat pan of water. When water is boiling set into oven. Bake 10 minutes and spray again with water. Repeat in another 10 minutes. After 10 minutes remove pan of water and brush loaves with egg-white. Spray again in 10 minutes. Turn off oven heat. After 10 minutes open door halfway and let loaves dry. Take out and cool on cake racks. Eat, or freeze. To reheat frozen bread, run loaf under cold running water and place on center rack of a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Remove and let cool, then cut and serve. Or, thaw bread, coat with water, and reheat at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Frozen, reheated bread is better than when it is fresh; I do not know why.

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