For some reason I got it in my head that I wanted to uncover the secret to making the perfect baguette. After weeks of working on it I think I am approaching my goal. As I've gotten much advice over the past few weeks on Facebook and I figured I'd share the recipe as it currently stands. My next big batch of bread will be cooked tomorrow. I'm going to play with the rise time and the gluten content on the next batch. I'll let you know how that goes in a subsequent post.
I started off my quest using the cookbook "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" as the base for this quest. Their recipe calls for the standard white bread configuration:
3 Cups Lukewarm Water
1 1/2 Tbs Yeast
1 1/2 Tbs Kosher Salt
6 1/2 Cups Unsifted All-Purpose Flour
These ingredients provide a good starting point but in my first successful batch I switched all-purpose flour with its more expensive organic cousin, Bob's Red Mill Bread Flour. If I were new to bread baking I'd start with the all-purpose variety as it is a good start and much cheaper.
The water should be about 100 F and feel warm to the touch. Place it in a large plastic mixing bowl with a lid. Add the yeast. Let it rest for five minutes or so. Add the first two or three cups of flour. Stir these in by hand or with a wooden or plastic spoon. Add your salt (don't put the salt in directly with the yeast as it renders the yeast less effective). Mix in the rest of your flour until you have a sticky slightly moist dough. DO NOT KNEAD. This should yield between 4-6 loaves so make sure you're hungry for bread.
I'm working on variations right now, but in my first successful baguette I put this dough directly in the fridge with the lid resting on top of the bowl but not secured. Let it rise in the fridge overnight. I know this seems counter-intuitive but it worked so trust me.
Remove the bowl from the fridge about two hours prior to cooking to let it rise to room temperature. Cut, pull, or otherwise remove a grapefruit size piece of dough. This is your first loaf of bread. Sprinkle a light dusting of flour over the remaining dough and put it back in the fridge (unless you're going to make more loaves in which case knock yourself out).
With floured hands and on a LIGHTLY floured surface lightly work the dough into a baguette shape. I did this simply by folding the dough on itself and stretching it at the ends. I haven't quite mastered the shaping technique but I'm working on it. I made my baguette about 24" long and about 2" in diameter. Once formed, let it rest for 25-30 minutes on the lightly floured surface.
While the dough is resting preheat your oven to between 480-500. You'll want a pizza stone in the oven along with a broiler tray. Position the stone on a high rack I did mine two down from the elements. The rack with the broiler tray goes on the lowest shelf. Start the pre-heating around the time you let your dough start proofing.
Shortly before the 25 minutes are up brush your dough with water using a pastry brush. After it's brushed make three to five (depending on the length of the baguette) slashes on the baguette using a serrated blade or exacto knife. The cut should go in a diagonal line across the width of the bread. They should be about 1/2 inch deep. Fill a liquid measuring cup with 1 1/2 cups of water.
Turn your oven down to 475. Transfer the dough onto the hot pizza stone (use a pizza peal if you have one if not just don't burn yourself). Keep the cut side up. Pour the water into the broiler pan. Close the oven quickly. Allow the bread to cook for 25-30 minutes depending on your oven. Your bread should be a golden brown heading toward dark brown and sound hollow when you tap it. Transfer to a wire rack and let it cool a bit before eating it. When you do cut into it you should have a light and fluffy crumb with lots of little air pockets in it. Please note if you leave it in the fridge to rise for three to four days you'll get a very pleasant sourdough tang to the bread. It's like San Francisco hooked up with Paris and had a delicious baby.
For my next variant I'm starting with a warm rise before I refrigerate and I added some gluten supplement to the dough. I'll let you know how that goes.