The smell of freshly baked bread is an attention grabber like no other. It’s universal. At first whiff, people the world over fall into a Zen-like state…. followed immediately by a growling tummy.
Basking in that intoxicating aroma, we imagine the warmth as we break open a piping hot baguette, slowly pulling it apart, and bringing it up to our eagerly awaiting mouth. We can taste the melting butter as it oozes into the nooks and crannies. The crunchy outside, the soft insides. They call it the staff of life for a reason.
And, of course, it looks pretty cool when it’s sticking out of your shopping bag. Note my photo above.
I have to admit, when my kids were growing up, I MAY have gone a little overboard. Since I was a stay-at-home mom I decided to make as much from scratch as I could. Including bread. Including yogurt. Including pasta. I thought if they were indoctrinated with homemade everything, the taste of preservatives, sugar, and salt laden foods (like store bought cookies, box mac and cheese, and sugary cereals) might not appeal to them.
Yeah, well – it seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate the pull of peer pressure. Not to mention that sugary/salty foods just plain taste good. After all, that’s what they’re meant to do to keep people eating them.
It was on the job training for me – my mother was not exactly an adventurous cook. Lots of roasts, burgers, frozen dinners. She had no culinary words of wisdom to impart to me, her only daughter. So I read cookbooks and just jumped in. There were surprisingly few failures – cooking really isn’t as difficult as one might think – if you follow the instructions!
The first bread I tried making was whole wheat. What with having kids now, I knew that would be the most important since sandwich making was going to be a daily activity for years to come. It was a bit tricky and I had to constantly revise my recipe. The problem was, the healthier the bread, the more it tended to fall apart. Not a good thing! It got better through the years, but it was never like the OroWheat bread I, admittedly, buy now. In my defense, I hardly eat sandwiches anymore so I keep a loaf frozen….just in case.
Next, I tried my hand at making French bread. Ah, ha! (Or should I say – Voilà!) This was a success from the start. It’s quite easy to make and there are very few ingredients. I did allow myself the luxury of buying a French bread baking pan. You can see it in the photo below. It’s a perforated metal, curved double loaf pan. The curved sides keep the bread in the traditional round shape, and the perforated metal allows for air circulation. It’s not a necessity, though. Your loaves will still come out delicious just using a cookie sheet.
NOTE: I actually bought two bread pans. Back in the days when I was baking lots of French bread, I would make four loaves at once, then freeze what we didn’t eat. While freshly baked baguettes are best (unintentional alliteration), they still freeze well. You know me – use that freezer! If you’re going to the trouble of cooking something, make multiple batches and freeze the extras so you can have homemade food even on days you can’t/don’t want to cook AND you only have to wash the cookware once.
YES, French bread is a yeast dough. NO, it’s not difficult. I promise!!! And, YES, it takes time because the dough has to rise.
BAGUETTE – makes 2 loaves
- 2¼ tsp dry active yeast (or 1 packet)
- 1½ cups water
- 1 T sugar
- 2 tsp salt
- 3½ – 4 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ tsp cornstarch
- ¼ cup water (separate from water mentioned above)
The first thing to do is to activate the yeast. To do this, simply heat the 1½ cups of water to about 100º Fahrenheit (hot tap water will do) and stir in the yeast. Set it aside to proof – it will begin to foam-up.
Into your food processor put 3 cups of the flour (we’ll add the rest as needed), the sugar, and the salt. Attach the lid. When the yeast is proofed (it takes about 5 minutes and will be foamy on top), turn on the processor and slowly pour in the yeast water through the feed tube. Once all the water is in, continue to let the machine run for 30 seconds or so to incorporate the flour.
More than likely you’ll need to add more flour. What you want is the dough to form a ball. With 3 cups of flour, it’s probably still all over the workbowl. Add in ½ cup more flour and run machine again. If it still doesn’t form a ball on it’s own, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it does. Give it some time to run when you add in more flour – it takes a few seconds for the new flour to incorporate.
When the dough ball forms, continue to run the machine for 45 seconds to knead it.
NOTE: If you don’t have a food processor, you’ll have to do all the above steps in a bowl and knead for 10 minutes by hand. But, honestly, think about buying one. I use mine nearly everyday! It’s a great time saver. Plus, I HATE sticky dough on my hands. Letting the food processor run for 45 seconds is so much better than kneading dough by hand for 10 minutes!!!
Take the dough ball out of the food processor and smoosh it down into a greased bowl. Then pick up dough ball, flip it, and smoosh down the other side into the bowl. This greases the whole ball. Cover with a tea towel and let rise for about 1 hour.
Punch down the dough. If you’ve never heard this term before, you may be thinking I’ve gone a little crazy. Punching down dough simply means taking your fist and punching the risen dough to deflate it. This is my favorite part of bread making. But mind if you’re having a bad day – DON’T punch the tar out of the dough. (He’s not the one who wouldn’t let you in when you forgot you wanted to turn left and were in the wrong lane.) Just a quick love tap will do. Then divide the dough in half. Take each half and stretch it to the length of baguette you want. Obviously, the longer the bread, the thinner the loaf. Whichever way you like it is fine.
Lay each stretched out loaf on a groove of your French bread pan or a cookie sheet that been greased and sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover the loaves and let rise for 30 minutes.
In a small saucepan, heat together the ¼ cup water and cornstarch over a low/medium heat. Stir constantly until the liquid becomes less murky. This will happen at the boiling point. Remove from heat.
Preheat oven to 425º.
When dough has risen and oven is preheated, make 2 or 3 diagonal slashes in the raw loaves with a sharp knife or pair of scissors. Brush with cornstarch glaze and bake for 10 minutes. Brush with glaze again, and continue to bake an additional 15 minutes. Remove from pan and serve!
Added bonus: The aroma of freshly baked bread will linger in your house for awhile, reminding your family just how hard you work for them!