Cooking- it’s one of my favorite activities, especially recently. Despite that, there are a ton of basic cooking skills I never learned.
I taught myself how to cook one summer when I lived on top of a supermarket. I would walk home, get exactly what I needed for that day, and spend the rest of my evening experimenting away. Most of those nights, I would throw interesting looking ingredients in a pan and wait to see what would happen. More or less, that’s still what I do, although Deanna’s generally pretty happy at what results out of my experiments and I’ve developed a few meals I’m pretty confident in my ability to make well for other people.
That said, Ken Griffey Jr. being voted into baseball’s Hall-of-Fame yesterday was a good reminder that fundamentals are important.
So, I made myself a list of 52 things I’d want to be able to cook from scratch by the end of the year… starting with simple things like rye bread or french toast and evolving into more complex things that I can’t even pronounce… bryndzové halusky, anyone?
I’ll be documenting these challenges, along with some fun facts and tricks I’ve learned along the way, for the sake of my own education and memory.
I’ll post that list eventually… but in the meantime, it’s on to item number one…
The French Baguette
Thing I Learned #1– The French Baguette took off in popularity after a bunch of labor laws in France were passed preventing anyone from going to work before four in the morning. Good news for almost everybody… who wants to work at that hour? Apparently bakers. Their main breakfast staple was a sourdough bread, which took more hours of prep than they could get with the new labor law. They figured out things eventually, though, by going with the baguette that requires less prep time because of a more active yeast.
I wanted to make a baguette as item number one for a few reasons. For starters, it’s a simple item, and simplicity always makes for a good start. Also, it’s really versatile and I could have it with anything from olive oil and pepper to full on sandwich ingredients. I figured I would make enough baguettes to have them several ways.
I also wanted to go with a bread for starters because I’d never really made my own bread. But homemade bread is so good, it saves you money, and it makes your house smell really damn good. Also, I’ve never been much of a baker. Eyeballing measurements and cooking-to-taste is more of my style, but that doesn’t translate as well to baking, which is much, much more sensitive to getting those ratios right.
For this project, I mostly followed the directions of Steve from Take Back the Bread, who gives great directions on how to make baguettes without a baguette pan.
5 cups of bread flour
2 teaspoons of salt
Just a bit of canola oil
1 pkg. of active yeast
2 Cookie Sheets
A good deal of aluminum foil
A mixing bowl
A few sheets of parchment paper
A tea cloth
1) The Baguette Pan
Most baguettes from professional bakeries are made with real-deal baguette pans… but I don’t have one at home, nor do most people. Also, even though they aren’t that expensive, I was feeling stingy. The important part of the baguette pan’s structure is that it’s rows of half-pipes hold the logs of dough in place, and the perforated bottom allows steam to cook the underside. That could be somewhat replicated by the porousness of parchment paper, and by doing anything to mimic that half-pipe shape.
I did that by molding aluminum foil into a few walls, and then draping parchment paper in between them. Steve recommends using a glass jar to get the shape which also works. Once I had some sticky dough handy, I used bits of it to get the foil to stay in place better.
It looks like the makeshift item that it truly is, but it got the job done.
2) Get the yeast going
Yeast is such a fascinating… biological product. Open up one packet (which usually equals 2.25 teaspoons). Since yeast is a life form, extreme conditions distress it, so getting it to soak for about ten minutes in hot water (not boiling, just uncomfortably hot) will get it active. That usually takes ten minutes, but you’ll know it’s ready when there’s a bit of a goopy film at the top.
3) Makin’ dough
Then I added in the salt. I started to mix in 4.5 cups of flour, but not all at once, so I could get a nice, sticky, doughy consistency. It got really, really sticky and this is probably one of the messier parts of the process when you get all handsy. You’ll know it’s time for that when it gets too hard to stir with a spoon. Be sure to flour up your hands or you will get stuck to the dough like quicksand, with your entire body eventually disappearing into the abyss of the mixing bowl.
Thing I Learned #2– Flour is very different in different parts in the world. In the U.S.A., you need bread flour, specifically labeled, to make bread. In Canada, their take on all-purpose flour actually works for bread. Steve was Canadian, hence this fun fact. I can’t speak for other countries.
Eventually I molded the sucker into a big rounded ball, and then took it out of the bowl and onto a sheet of parchment paper. I then took a splash of canola oil and coated the edges of the bowl. I stuck the ball back in the oiled up bowl.
4) Waiting on the
World Dough to Change
Wait an hour. Seriously… go do something. Or get started on the next batch. That big ball needs about an hour to rise… you want it to double in size.
5) They See Me Rollin’
Imagine that cut-screen from Spongebob Squarepants… the one that says One Hour Later… did you imagine it? Good.
Now we actually make the dough into baguette shapes. My pan was fit for three loaves, so I took the ball of dough and divided it into three by pinching and twisting it into even clumps.
Throw a bunch of flour on the counter so it doesn’t get too sticky. Using a rolling pin… and those are always fun to use… I started to flatten them out. According to Steve, I wanted a nice rectangular shape, which should be as long as I wanted my baguettes to be. Since these are baguettes we’re talking about, I wanted them as comically long and thin as I could get to fit in my oven. Once it’s flat, you simply start rolling the rectangle up into that familiar baguette shape. The ends look like spirals, and unless you want that weirdness, you’ll wanna take an edge of the baguette and tuck it in.
Place these guys in the makeshift baguette pan and tuck them in with a tea cloth. Really… it’s like putting them to bed.
Guess what you do now? That’s right. More waiting. About another hour for the dough to continue to rise in this shape.
Thing I Learned #3– Baguettes are actually really sensitive to temperature and humidity. The dough will rise very differently from one part of the country to the next… probably from one room to the next.
Actually, that’s the great debate in New Orleans. The bread process I’m using is used to make the buns of a po’boy sandwich. But does that make it a French baguette? Some would argue that the Delta humidity alters the dough way too much that it’s its own animal.
6) Time to go all Dexter on these loaves
After the loaves have risen, you’re supposed to “score” them. That’s creating those diagonal lines where it looks like the inner bread has burst out of its crust like the Incredible Hulk, except in nice, even stripes. The trick is to take a serrated knife and use it like a razor quickly. You don’t need to cut deeply, the inside should rise on its own.
At least it should. This was one of the least successful parts of my own attempt. My cuts just twisted the outer layer of dough more. Perhaps the loaves didn’t quite rise the way they were supposed to. I tried to compensate while they were in the oven, but I did that too late and it didn’t really work out.
Finally, time to bake them. Make sure parchment paper is covering the bottom of the baguette pan, and lightly dust them with flour. It gives them that dusty charm. You’ll want them in the oven at 425º F. Also, you’ll want to take the second cookie sheet and fill it up with a thin layer of water. Put that on the lower rack. The steam will cook the bread’s surface all around.
Usually they take about 20 minutes, though check up on them. Also, be careful opening the oven. The steam will rush out, causing unintentional facials.
You’ll know you’re ready when…
…the house smells magical, the outsides of the loaves are a dark golden color, and they look like the baguettes you know and love.
Pardon the men’s yoga pants.
Serving these Suckers
What’s great about baguettes is how versatile they are. If you want to enjoy these in the most simple way while they’re fresh. I recommend pouring out some olive oil and pepper. Deanna and I used a little bit of basil infused olive oil from Temecula Olive Oil Co. that Chris and Katie got us for Christmas.
Baguette sandwiches are also amazing. Slice some of the loaves in two, and you can put whatever you like in them.
When I studied abroad in Italy during college, I would grab a baguette every day, a pack of prosciutto, and some brie, and that would be my lunch. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t be an option today as well.
Another thing I love to do with baguettes, a simple egg and brie sandwich.
In Morocco, Turkey, Egypt… most Middle Eastern countries, you can find a baguette vendor roaming the neighborhood early in the morning, selling the freshest loaves. One of my favorite Middle Eastern discoveries while traveling was how amazing one of the most simple of sandwiches could be… egg and a soft cheese, and that’s it. The cheese adds just a bit of saltiness and the runny yolk gets soaked up by the bread. The real selling point, though, is the freshness of the baguette. It’s such a simple concept but it’s amazing.
I tried to replicate one for Deanna for dinner the other day. I also set out a simple charcuterie board alongside the fresh loaves.
In The Future
The only drawback to this baguette recipe is all the time it takes, but if you’re doing some chores around home, the two hours waiting for the dough to rise shouldn’t be a big deal. These are so versatile and can be eaten so many different ways that I’ll be doing this again soon.