Okay, I think I'm finally getting back on track with the BBA Challenge. I hit a slump a couple months ago after making the English muffins, which didn't turn out all that well. A lot was going on, both at home and at work, and I just lost most of my bread-baking motivation. In December, I finally got back on track with blogging (thanks to all the cookie baking), but then the holidays happened, and work got even crazier. But I finally had some vacation time around Christmas, and got the focaccia made. That turned out really well, so I pressed on to the next recipe, French bread.
I admit, I've been a bit intimidated by the French bread recipe. Not by the dough itself; that didn't look too difficult. But while I've gotten better, I still feel like I don't have the best shaping skills in the world--and baguettes are definitely my weak point. As with many of the other BBA breads, this one starts with a pre-ferment. I've made bigas and poolishes before, but this time, I got to try pâte fermentée. Like the other pre-ferments, the point is to develop flavor by giving part of the dough a head start. Pâte fermentée is the most dough-like of the pre-ferments--the ingredient ratios are the same as for the final dough; you just make it a day or more ahead of time so it has time for fermentation.
The dough was easy to mix up, though I did make quite a mess. The recipe says to cut the pâte fermentée into pieces and put the them in a bowl with the flours, yeast and salt. Then you're supposed to mix everything together a bit, then add water. Yeah, well, that resulted in flour everywhere, including all over me! (and of course I wasn't wearing my apron...) I don't think I actually lost all that much flour (I was able to recover quite a bit from the counter), but I'll definitely adjust the mixing order next time. I kneaded for just a bit with the mixer, then finished it by hand. It was a very nice dough to knead.
As I mentioned, before starting, I was concerned about shaping the dough into baguettes. But the dough was very easy to work with. I decided to go with the three small baguettes. I followed the directions, first pre-shaping as batards and then forming the baguettes. The dough extended so easily, almost like magic. =) I used my improvised couche again and the loaves held their shapes nicely. For a change, I was even able to score the loaves neatly, though I think I should have made the cuts just a bit deeper. Next up was getting the loaves into the oven. I really need a bigger peel--mine definitely wasn't up to the job of moving all three baguettes. I ended up putting parchment on the back of one of my half-sheet (13x18) pans and putting them on that. I transferred them to my baking stone, parchment and all, and added water to the steam pan in the bottom of my oven (I use the bottom part of my broiler pan). I baked my baguettes for 30 minutes, at which point they had great color and a temperature of about 205F.
The verdict? Tastes just like French bread! I know, so surprising. =) And it looked and sounded like French bread, too. Shortly after I removed the baguettes from the oven, I could hear them crackling. The crust was quite crisp--it cracked a lot when I cut the first piece. The bread was good, especially when very fresh and with some butter and salt. But to be honest, French bread isn't really my favorite. It seems rather dry, and seems to stale quickly, though I was able to give it new life as garlic bread. =) Not sure how often I'll make it, but I'm really glad that I tried it.
If you want to try this one for yourself, you can find the recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice, of course. I highly recommend getting your own copy if you don't have one. And watch for a round-up of all the Slow and Steady bakers on Nancy's bread blog in the near future.