About two weeks ago I wrote about my problems with baguettes. Writing that post only made me more determined to bake a good baguette myself. If you wonder why such obsession with the famous French stick, let me explain the reasons. Since I started baking for fun I felt the need to build a certain repertoire of bread "classics". A bit like learning to play jazz: you need to hammer in those classic if you want to go free-style. Having to stay home with little Saami for a week (hit by chickenpox) I took the chance and played around and tried as many different baguette methods as I could in the time available. I think I'm finally quite happy with the baguettes I made at the end. I also found out one or two tricks to baguette making that work in my conditions (i.e. in my oven). But most of all I have to admit that what really helped was baking each day some baguettes, in two occasions even twice a day. As usual, silly as it may sound, practice, practice and again practice are the best tools to improve.
I'll skip the recipes that worked so and so and go straight to the "winner". In the end the recipe that worked best came from a book I mentioned in the last post, Peter Rehinardt's Crust and Crumb. He has two methods, a straight yeast one and one with old dough, inspired by the method made famous by Raymond Calvel. The old dough one was by far superior although both gave nice bread especially when the final proofing stage was retarded overnight, as Rehinardt suggests, by placing the shaped baguettes in the fridge. I had to modify a few things here and there to make the recipe work for my conditions (oven size/flour type/etc). The first thing I changed was the old dough "recipe". Rehinardt has you prepare some old dough extra. Since I was trying his straight yeast method anyway I decided to save some of that and use it as old dough.
The straight dough method is practically always the same. The quantities: 1 kg flour (possibly type 55, or half bread and half all purpose flour), 660 g water, 1 package active dry yeast and about 20 g salt (or in percent 100 flour, 66 water, 2 salt, 0.5 yeast). Rehinardt has you add 1 tsp of malt extract or brown sugar (to ca. 1 kg flour). This certainly seems to give a nicer, darker crust to the breads though I'm not really convinced that the yeast need this extra food at all. So to start I made a large batch of the plain dough, let it rise for about 90 minutes and split it approximately into thirds. One third to use as old dough (went into the fridge), one to make an oval loaf (keep forgetting how they're called in French) with the overnight fridge proofing method and one to make baguettes straight away, just to compare the results with and without the overnight step.
Since the dough I took for making baguettes straight away was too much for just one loaf I split it into two 300 g (about 10 oz) pieces, quite a bit less than the 16 oz to 19 oz suggested in the book and which I used before. Because of this necessary change I found out that this size (300g) seems to be the ideal for my home oven, which is not that deep. With the bigger amounts my baguettes always tended to expand too much on the sides and be more flat-ish (even when under-proofed) than round/oval in section. I imagine the problem comes from the shaping. I guess that when using 16 oz dough I couldn't really roll and stretch the baguette as much as I should have, otherwise it wouldn't have fitted in the oven, and so the surface skin was not as tense as it should be. BTW someone kindly pointed out to me that my fantastic ;-) building blocks creation for baguette proofing is not necessary. French bakers have used for ages a linen cloth, dusted and then folded upwards to separate the rising baguettes and that's what I used this time. It's a bit more practical, I have to admit. The baguettes, baked for about 25 minutes at 230C (450F) and sprayed with water three times in the first 5 minutes, came out with a nice crust and irregular crumb (as I hoped) but the taste was not too exiting. Also the slashing of the dough could be a bit better, still have to improve that.
Next morning I went on an baked my loaf, which had proofed overnight in the fridge inside a banetton. The dough was quite clearly over-proofed and the bread came out a bit flatter than expected. My fridge is quite cold but 14 hours seemed too much. I found out afterwards that between 8 and 10 hours fridge-retarding is ideal, at least in my case. On the other hand the crust was great, full of little blisters typical of over-night retarded breads, and with a great crunch. Rehinardt talks about the sound of the crust of a good loaf as something magical, which you'll long for each time you bake. I couldn't describe it better: when I manage to bake a loaf with a nice crackly crust I always feel really satisfied. The retarding also improves the crumb flavour, giving the bread a very slight sourdough-ish aroma.
And finally, if you made till here, I made the baguettes with the old dough method. The quantities are the same as in the basic baguette dough plus 50% pre-fermented or old dough, i.e. 500g old dough to 1 kg flour. The dough mixing is somewhat different. First all ingredients except salt and old dough (which also contains salt) are kneaded till a rough dough forms. At this point there is a 20-30 minutes rest phase to allow autolyse to happen. If you're wondering what autolyse is follow this link and scroll down till the last entry under A, there's a quite good explanation there. Then salt and old dough are added and the dough kneaded till smooth and stretchy (full gluten development). After this the procedure is as for the straight dough bread: rise, shaping, overnight fridge proofing (this time 10 hours) and baking. Rehinardt suggests to take the dough out of the fridge about one hour before baking, to let it warm at room temperature. Other authors skip this step but I found it lets the dough bloom in a more regular way once in the oven. Another good tip is to let the dough dry out a bit in the last 15 minutes before baking to make it easier to slash. Especially with a soft dough as this, I found it helped quite a bit
I baked some baguettes till blond and some I left a bit longer. Both were really nice. I preferred the darker ones while Daniela liked the lighter ones better. Both had a nice crust, full of blisters, as you can see from the opening pic, and the crumb had a nice irregular structure and a great flavour. Now I've got a freezer full of baguettes... I think I'll take a pause from French bread for a while :-). Time to move to the next bread challenge... focaccia sounds quite interesting...