Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Foolproof French Bread

Bread, homemade and still warm from the oven, mmmmmm mmmmmmm, it’s pure delight. Fresh bread is near the top of my list of comfort foods. Just the thought of a buttered slice triggers hunger pangs, as I recall the taste, the contrast of the crisp, crunchy crust with the light, airy center.  Oh megayum! Sourdough boules, No-Knead Dutch oven wonders, French baguettes, Italian rustic loaves, Walnut levain… the list goes on and I love them all. So it’s no surprise that the moment we arrived at the boat on Friday I whipped up a batch of bread for our my (almost) immediate consumption. I explained to the Capt. that the scent of baking bread was my contribution to freshening up the interior. He just shook his head and opened some portholes and hatches. I'm sure he wanted to share the tantalizing aroma with the rest of the dock.

The recipe, French Bread My Way, is from a treasured paperback copy of Entertaining Recipes for Cabins, Condos and Cottages by Pamela L. Thomas, and has become my favorite go-to solution for quick, reliable results. The dough is forgiving, easy to work with, and welcomes a variety of flavor additions such as herbs, garlic, olives, shredded cheese, etc. Flavor away if you like, but I think it’s terrific without any extras. Well, that's no extra flavorings but I do enjoy my slice with a slather of butter and a sprinkle of chunky sea salt on top.

And why am I posting this recipe now, after all these years? Well, Mom phoned and asked for the recipe and I thought others might like it too. The 1990-98 Thomas cookbook is out of print, but I might buy a second copy from one of the online resellers. Again, why? just because it’s full of interesting commentary and good recipes, many from older Jr. League cookbooks across the country. I would enjoy a copy in my home kitchen as well as in the boat galley.

Based on French Bread My Way

from Entertaining Recipes for Cabins, Condos and Cottages, by Pam L. Thomas

2 Tbs  yeast                           2 1/2 cups warm water (100 F)
1 Tbs  salt                             6 cups AP unbleached flour
2 Tbs  sugar                           1 egg white, beaten

1. Place the yeast, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl and blend. Slowly add the warm water, stirring, until the yeast, salt and sugar are dissolved.  
2. Add 1 cup of flour at a time, mixing well with a wooden spoon after each addition. [I use a whisk for the first 3 cups of flour] 
3. Turn the dough onto a countertop or breadboard dusted with flour and knead well for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the texture smooths out. 
4. Place the dough back in the mixing bowl and cover with a tea towel dampened in hot water. Let it rise until doubled in size [1 to 2 hours depending on kitchen temperature]. 
5. Punch the dough down gently and give it another knead or two.
6. Cut the dough into 4 pieces and shape into long, thin loaves. [roll on the counter, then hold the loaf in the air with one hand and squeeze it with the other hand, lengthening it. You want it about an inch shorter than your pans. Twist it a few times for a rope effect. 
7. Place in a baguette mold [or use bread pans] sprayed with PAM or greased with shortening. 
8. Do the same with the remaining three loaves. 
9. Cover with a dampened tea towel and let rise again in the pans until they are the size you want them to be, usually less than an hour.
10. Now slash tops diagonally with a sharp knife or razor blade and brush with the beaten egg white. 
12. Place pans in a preheated 400 degree oven with a small pan of water beneath the bread pans. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until well-browned [and the interior temperature is 190-200 F]. 
13. Remove from oven and remove from pans, allowing to cool on a baking rack before slicing... if you can wait.

If you aren’t going to eat all of them right away, wrap in foil and place in the freezer. When ready to reheat, unwrap and place in a 350 oven for 10 minutes. This makes 4 good-sized baguettes.

A rough baking schedule might look like this: 
15 min       Ready supplies
30 min       Mix and knead
1 -2 hrs      1st rise
45 min       Shape, 2nd rise and preheat oven
30 min+     Bake at 400 conv. Switch pan positions midway.

Additiional notes to consider:
1. The original recipe calls for a lot of yeast, but it works. You get fresh bread with a good flavor in four hours or less.
2. The bread is best eaten within a day or two, or frozen for later use. It dries out as the days pass.
3. Even dried out it makes terrific panzanella salad, or croutons for salad or soup, or toasted bread crumbs to top mac ‘n cheese or roasted vegetables.
4. This dough has made some tasty breadsticks and sausage rolls too.
5. Too much bread? make a half recipe for 2 large or 3 skinny loaves.

10/30/10 note: OR  divide the dough after the first rise and hold in the fridge for a few days. See the next post for one idea. 

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