French Bread That Tastes French
Category: Side Dishes | Blog URL: http://epicuriousmothering.blogspot.com/search?q=french+bread
This recipe was entered in The Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook contest, a compilation of the world’s best food blogs which was published in Fall 2010.
Photo: Mary Malcarne Thomas
I have always had a weakness for crusty, chewy, moist french bread. In my healthy whole wheat only upbringing, the light flakey warmth of a fresh baked loaf of french bread was magic to me as a girl.
My clearest memories of my adolescence surround buying loaves of french bread from the local grocery store (and in the east coast, all grocery stores have killer bakeries--in my opinion) or bakery, still warm, and a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese and a few apples. With my sisters or by myself, I'd walk through the summer tourist filled Essex village center, dusty cut-offs, loose white t-shirts and dirt covered tevas, and with our feet dangling over the edge of the docks, we'd tear off great hunks of bread and laughing and telling each other our hopes or dreams or if I was alone, thinking of my hopes and dreams, we'd fill our mouths with the perfect warm goodness of the yeasty wonder. The water beneath our swinging legs a dull grey green with darting sparks of silver begging for a crumb or two and the swooping, pooping seagulls screaming for just one piece. Beautiful lithe sail boats would glide by, their sails slapping and snapping in the steady breezes and obnoxiously loud cigarette boats would roar by with their hulls three quarters out of the water.
Someday, we vowed, we'd own a boat and fly up and down the river, the wind whipping our hair away from our faces. Or maybe we'd own a sailboat that we'd take out into the sound and sail from one yacht club to another.
But for now, we told ourselves, this was enough--to sit in the warm sun, eating crusty, warm delicious bread and believe that our future held big and wonderful things.
This obviously explains why I have been, for years, obsessed with making the perfect loaf of rustic french bread. When I visited France, this obsession became something closer to a sort of madness. I still haven't approached the bubbly, hard, crusty, soft centered, deliriously deliciousness of true french bread, but I have, through trial and error, discovered how to make, relatively easily, somewhat perfect loaves of french bread.
So here it is.
French Bread de Mary
(this is for 4 full sized loaves--ah, heaven heaven heaven--so you may want to half it for those of you NOT cooking for a crowd)
1/2 cup (hot to the touch) water
3 TBSP yeast
2 Tbsp sugar
mix together in a small bowl or cup and let grow for 5-10 minutes
In another bowl or mixer (I always use my kitchenaid)
4 cups tap hot water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 Tbsp salt
mix in enough flour so that it looks like super thick gravy or muffin batter (usually at least 5-6 cups, sometimes even 7).
Add the yeast mixture and stir until totally mixed in.
Stir or mix on high for 3 minutes.
Let sit and rise for 10-20 minutes (or until it's super bubbly and frothy).
(at this point, I always start preparing my meal--marinating the chicken or starting the pasta sauce or just hang out. You could leave it for an hour if you want, it will just be yeastier and that's probably better. I just never plan enough time in to let it rise that long. So if you forget about it or get distracted, no worries)
Then to the bubbly risen mixture, add enough flour until it's sticky dough (usually another 3-5 cups).
Either empty out and start kneading, or add more flour into your mixer until the dough no longer clings to the side of the bowl. This dough should be a big sticky-ish to the touch and soft.
(another note on kneading--if you're doing this by hand, you will flip the dough out on a floured surface with at least a cup of flour and the dough will be super sticky and make your hands all leprosy-ish. Shake more flour over the mound as you fold it in during the kneading process. If you've never kneaded, pull out your cook book and read up on it. There is an art to it and something totally therapeutic and earthy. You want to knead this dough until it feels like play dough, but still just a little bit sticky).
Knead by hand until or in the mixer on medium speed for 5 minutes.
Then let the dough rest in an oiled bowl, covering it with some plastic wrap and a towel, for 30 minutes to an hour--or until it's totally doubled in size. You want to put the dough in a draft free, warm place (this is very important).
(this process can be sped up by placing the bowl in a warm oven that you've thrown a bit of water into the bottom--you probably shouldn't do that in a unsealed gas oven. A pan of warm water beneath the dough works too. The moisture totally speeds up the process and makes the dough just a little . . . better)
Preheat oven to 425 (after you've removed the rising dough).
(I oil the surface to work the bread. Some schools of thought flour the surface. I'm sure both work, but I like the less mess of the oiled counters)
Spray down counter with Pam and empty dough onto the counter.
Divide dough into four parts and then roll the dough out into 5 inch wide and 14 inch long strips (this is very approximate--your dimensions may be really different) then roll the long sides together, making a longish snake looking loaf.
Place loaves, 2 each, on a Pam sprayed cookie sheet (or a french bread mold if you have one--I personally like how they look better just cooking them on a jelly roll pan).
Let rise for 20-30 minutes or until doubled in size (or at least 1/3 in size).
Cut four diagonal strips along the top with a very sharp knife (and it really does need to be sharp).
Carefully (one sheet of bread at a time) place in oven and cook for 20 minutes.
Mix together one egg white and 2 tbsp water.
After 20 minutes take the loafs out of the oven. They should be golden brown and appear to be done. Do not be fooled. Brush on the egg white and water mixture lightly over the bread--it will steam and sizzle. This makes that shiny, crusty top.
Return loaves to oven and bake for another five minutes.
You will be afraid they will burn. They will not (. . . if you have an oven just like mine, HOWEVER, youR oven may be hotter than mine, so if it's getting really dark brown, you may want to take it out after three minutes--but try hard to keep it in. After the first time baking, you'll know your oven works. But you want it REALLY dark and crusty with lots of golden and dark brown. In France, they were practically burned. Oh, but the crunch and crust with soft lovely innards. Look closely at the photo at the top and that's how it should look at the end.)
After five minutes, remove from oven and slide onto a cooling wrack.
Now, I know this sounds complicated and hard, but I promise you it isn't. And the results are amazing.
And then, while your biting into it, take a few moments to let your thoughts wander back to your own adolescence (the good memories) and wonder at the hopes and dreams you still harbor. Think, if I can make french bread, I can make those dreams come to pass. And probably, you will.
French bread really is magic.