The ‘French sticks’ that masquerade as baguettes or bâtards (the name by which they go in Paris) have for too long made a nonsense of the great reputation of France for good bread. Hard and tasteless flours, mechanical processes and an incredible acceleration of the old-fashioned steady fermentation are largely to blame. What you get nowadays is little more than crust and air, with no flavour and little texture.
It is possible to recreate something of the beauty of this everyday, sometimes twice a day, loaf of city dwellers throughout France in your own kitchen. True, the crackle and thinness of the crust is easier to achieve if you have a purpose-built baker’s oven, but the slightly chewy texture of the crumb, and the lightness of the well-proved dough is quite within the grasp of anyone.
These loaves are made with yeast rather than a leaven, but the fermentation is lengthy to give every chance of developing the flavour, and to reduce the amount of yeast needed to give lift. (Remember, the less yeast, generally the better the taste.) The French call the method fermentation ‘sur poolish’, a reference perhaps to the influence of Viennese and eastern European bakers on Parisian breadmaking during the first half of the 19th century.
If you do not have bannetons, you can lay the loaves immediately on a greased baking sheet (crease downwards), and prove them for slightly less time. Or you can buy specially made French baguette tins, which are economical of space. Equally, you can make what the French call a couche, by flouring a linen cloth and laying each loaf between a fold. Be warned that the knack of extracting the loaves from this arrangement and transferring them to the oven is something learnt in time. Disasters are not infrequent.
How the baguettes are baked will determine the character of the crust. Domestic ovens are often not hot enough, nor do they retain enough humidity to give that defined crackle. It is not satisfactory to bake on more than one level, the lower loaves will not be as good, and changing them round halfway through is not entirely successful. So, if your oven is not large enough to take all the loaves at once you can freeze two of the moulded loaves before they have started their final proof. Take them out the next day and carry on from that point.
© 2005 Tom Jaine. All rights reserved.