Many cooks don’t like baking. I am inclined to go so far as to say most don’t. When questioned most of the cooks and chefs who can’t stand to bake quote a lack of patience. Baking does indeed require patience. Personally I find it to be a form of meditation. Nothing more so than bread. All bread takes time and the best bread tends to take the most time. My personal favourite is a French recipe that takes several days. Appropriately we begin with the starter.
Good bread begins with a pre-ferment. This starter, also called a sponge, activates the yeast and improves flavour of the end product. It’s easy enough to put together, just being equal parts by weight of flour and water with a pinch of yeast.
125g Bread Flour
1/4 tsp Instant Yeast
Mix the above to form a batter, cover the bowl with plastic and go about your day. It has to sit for around 8 to 10 hours so you don’t have to keep too close an eye on it. Personally I find that although I’m not actively involved in what’s going on in this stage, my mind always is. If I’m sleeping, I dream of bread. This is part of what I mean by the meditative aspects of baking. Even if I’m not consciously thinking of it, it’s there. Next we make the dough. Add the following ingredients to the sponge.
240g Bread Flour (yes, bread flour is important)
15g Fine Cornmeal
1/2 tsp Instant Yeast
If you don’t have a food scale that’s alright and there’s a simple solution. Go buy a food scale. Seriously, they’re only about $40 and will make your baking much easier and more consistent. Anyway, mix the ingredients and knead until the gluten is fully developed. This is a very slack dough and it’s very fulfilling to feel the barely sold mass come together to become something new and more dough-like as you work it. Next, cover and leave to rise for about two hours. Once it has doubled in size, very gently roll the dough into a tighter ball and divide into three pieces.. Right now there is a lot of air in the dough and we want to keep it that way. So from here on in go very slow and gentle. Focus is required. Roll the three pieces once again into balls, then flatten to rectangles with the heel of your palm. Using your fingertips begin rolling the dough into cylinders. With practice you’ll be able to roll your dough in such a way as to form a tight skin without letting any air escape.
Roll out the cylinders and put on a tray. I have a special baguette pan but that’s not required. Put a plastic bag loosely over and put in the fridge for the final proof. At this stage you can leave it for anywhere from twelve to twenty four hours. When you are ready for bread. take it out and let rise at room temperature for two hours. For the last half hour take the bag away and leave uncovered. This allows a bit of a skin to develop and improves the final crust.
Heat the oven to 450° with a pan of hot water on the bottom rack. Once the baguettes are fully proofed and ready to bake, slash them diagonally a few times and bake for about 15 minutes.
Bread takes practice. It takes hard work. It takes time. There are no shortcuts to good bread. I’m of the belief that bread takes a lifetime to master. The perfect loaf is a journey of transformation.