Here is my first attempt at making French bread - baguettes. Viva la France! I bought the special baguette pan from "The Little French Bakery" on eBay. My total cost for it delivered was around $41 - not cheap, but I'm sold on it. I spent a lot of time researching French bread in old cookbooks and modern cookbooks. I noticed that a lot of modern expert chefs appear to have not done their homework. The older recipes for French bread did not have any oil in them. One long deceased author/chef described the differences between French and Italian bread as being mainly the addition of some olive oil to the French bread recipe to make Italian bread. The crust on the Italian bread was kept softer and the bread more pliable in order to soak up more of the sauces that the Italians used. In other words the Italians used it for sopping up their sauces...yummy... Just reading about it made my mouth start to salivate.
There was a noticeable lack of coordination between the recipe that came with the baguette pan and the pan size itself. The recipe indicates that 6-cups make one loaf; however, there was no way that one 6-cup loaf was going to fit neatly into one of the valleys in the baguette pan. So, I split the dough in half. When the dough started to rise I immediately had another problem. The dough was still a wee bit too much, and I had made the loaves too long. They were starting to flow out the ends of the pan! A quick folding of one end under and repositioning the dough took care of that problem. In all likelihood the dough ball probably should have been enough for 3 or even all 4 of the loaf valleys in the pan - it has 4. While I was wondering out loud about this my wife stepped in with a comment while she was eating her first chunk, and that was that she preferred the size of loaf that I had made. It was not all crust, yet it was not so large as to have not enough crust. In other words, she thought that it was just right. It could be sliced down the center and made into a giant sandwich too. Whatever. The bottom line is that I have to agree with her, and not because she's my wife. It made for a nice ratio of crisp and chewey crust to soft interior bread.
I had read several articles that stated that better tasting baguettes were the result of longer proofing times. So I let my dough develop overnight on the kitchen counter (covered with plastic in a bowl, of course). The results were well worth it. I like larger holes in baguettes, but I don't like ones that you could loose the Titanic in. These varied in size with the largest being not too large for my tastes. Now to find a white flour that is outstanding. I used Gold Medal Harvest King unbleached white flour, "better for bread" as it happened to be the only white bread flour that I had in our pantry. I'll be buying whatever else I can find locally to test them.
Here's a chunk with some butter ready to go. The texture is great. The gas bubble development was, to me, extraordinary. The crust was crisp, chewy, and and yet not so thick that it took excessive effort to bite through. I like crusty bread, but I've always disliked the crusts that were so thick and dry that when you did manage to bite through them the crust would break up into countless pieces going in every direction all over the place. This crust to me was just right. It pays to read those old bread recipe books.
Here is an image of my "back-to-basics" steam maker. I boil some water in a kettle, preheat the oven, put in the dough/baguette pan, add several cups of water, and close the door. I check back in 5 minutes to make sure that there is still enough water to last for 10 minutes. If there isn't I simply add more water. The crust development on my baguettes was just right! Crisp and chewy but not so thick as to require too much effort to eat. Delicious!