Photo from http://www.dineouthere.com/restaurants/salade-de-fruits-cafe-french-restaurant-in-vancouver because I didn't actually make french bread this week, so I don't have a photo...
So I said I'd try and get a recipe out this week... and I remembered I told a friend I'd post a recipe for french bread, so lets stop procrastinating (my favorite activity this week) and get a recipe down.
This will make 2 large baguettes, it's SUPER easy - even if you don't have a fabulous kitchen-aid mixer with dough hook attachment... however you definitely want a dough hook attachment for your stand mixer to make it super easy... it just doesn't need to be kitchen aid. (Sorry Jess, if I've violated #8 just then :-P), and you can definitely halve it to make 1 loaf.
A lot of people think they have to measure SUPER PRECISELY to make bread. While you're best bet for nice, fluffy bread is to actually use a measuring cup, don't panic if the measurements aren't PERFECT. Think about it - in medieval times, do you really think that people all had standardized measuring cups?
The directions for this look really complicated, so before you get there - this is a brief "what you're doing" so you don't hyperventilate at the concept of baking bread.
1) Mix dry ingredients
2) Add wet ingredient and let the mixer do it's job
3) Let it sleep for 2 hours
4) Make it look like a loaf of bread
5) Let it take another nap
6) Put it in the oven
7) Adjust temperature
8) Let it cool.
You only actually DO something for 3 steps. And while the dough is "resting" you don't even really need to be home, since your oven isn't on anyway. So throw some ingredients in your mixer, go to the gym, wash your hands and make it look like a bread loaf, take a shower, clean the kitchen, do some laundry, watch some TV, turn your oven on, pop it in and you have warm french bread.
Now, my Joy of Cooking cookbook that I get this from is really descriptive - it's my "go to book" if I want to make something new, and it's always delicious. So if you're looking for a good, descriptive, complete cookbook... that's the one I recommend.
Didn't I say I wasn't going to procrastinate? OK! OK! OK! here it is!
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
1 package (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
(SUPER easy - not even hot water!)
1) Mix flour, salt and yeast together in large bowl (yup, yeast too)
2) Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in water (all of it)
3) Stir thoroughly with a heavy duty mixer (you can do it by hand, but the mixer is so much easier) until dough is soft and elastic (I go for "looks silky" and then I pull on it to see if it stretches), about 12 minutes on low speed.
4) Cover dough with a clean, damp cloth, or turn it once in oil and cover bowl with plastic wrap (don't push the plastic wrap down on the dough, it needs room to grow)
5) Let it rise in a warm place (75*-85*) for 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.
BREAK! Time for some tips on bread rising.
So since I like the cold, I keep it air conditioned below 75* (73*, but still) and I've had difficulty getting bread to rise at that temperature.
I'd be ALL SET if my oven had a "proof" setting, but it doesn't.
Literally, the proof setting on your oven (if you have one) is for raising bread.
But if you're like me, and you don't have a proof setting, you can turn the oven on for a few minutes, and then turn it off. It'll warm up the inside of the oven just a little, and then you can put the bread inside the oven covered to rise - but MAKE SURE IT'S TURNED OFF!!!
And obviously, close the door, or it was a futile attempt at finding a "warm spot".
My grandmother often just puts it in the oven without doing a mini pre-heat... but she has a gas oven with a pilot light, so the oven IS a little warmer than the rest of the house normally.
Me and my electric oven... not so much.
Sometimes, she will also sit it on the stove BETWEEN burners that are on - so it warms up the air around it.
Basically, play some tricks, do what you need to do, to get the dough somewhere between 75 and 85 for a few hours.
6) Punch down the dough (aka, pull it out of the bowl, and don't worry that it's not as poofy as it was before you touched it) and place on a floured surface
7) Shape bread* (*see below) into baguettes and place onto a greased baking sheet. When you place your loaves, make sure to leave PLENTY of room between them, because they aren't done rising, and they'll almost double in size, so leave at least 1 loaf of space between them (1/2 a loaf worth on the sides :-P)
8) Cover the loaves with that damp cloth again and let the bread rise (in that warm place) until it's just less than doubled in size, and score the top (Cut with a very sharp, flat bladed knife about 1/2 inch deep lines about 2 inches apart across the top of the bread - this lets the bread expand in the oven, and makes it fluffy - yup, not just for pretties)
9) Preheat oven to 400* (make sure your bread isn't IN the oven at that point...)
Since the trick to CRUSTY bread is steam, we're going to need to find a way to MAKE that steam.
No worries, it's easy. You're going to find either an old metal baking sheet, or a cast iron pot, or an oven safe-something METAL and throw it in the oven to pre-heat as well.
(If you use glass, when you add the water to make the steam, the glass/ceramic dish with crack, and instead of steam, you'll have a mess and one less dish)
I've also found that when using a cookie sheet, the bottom can warp in the hot oven if there isn't enough water to cover the entire bottom for the entire baking time, and then any minerals in the water can bake onto the sheet, making it not pretty.
So I advise using an old sheet/cake pan/etc that you don't like, but keep for emergencies
(the oh my gosh, I need to make a three layer cake! kind of emergencies... what, you don't have those? Weird.)
I just use the sheet I got nasty when I learned the warp/minerals lesson. It's my "steam pan" now...
OK, you caught me again - I use a cast iron pan. I don't use my "lessons learned" cookie sheet anymore.
But I still have it.
10) Boil some water, and when the oven is pre-heated, pour about a cup of water into the pan - it will steam, and the oven is super hot, so don't get too close.
11) Place the bread on the center rack and bake for 15 minutes
12) Turn the oven down to 350* and bake for another 30 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. As an additional test, if you pull it off the pan, and tap the bottom, it will sound hollow.
13) Just as the crust is STARTING to turn brown (5 minutes or so before it's done), you can brush the loaf with an egg white/water mixture (1 egg white + 1 tablespoon water beaten together) to give it a nice finish and sheen. I usually forget this step, or decide I'm not wasting an egg on it :-P
14) cool on a wire rack. It says completely.... but warm fresh homemade crusty french bread is TO DIE FOR!! So wait... 5-10 minutes (the bread is still technically "cooking" when it comes out of the oven) and THEN slice into it... mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
* Shaping bread - french bread has a "specific" manner of shaping, it sounds complicated, but if you've ever made Play Doh snakes... you've done it. Start at the center of a hunk of dough, and roll away from you while pushing out to the edges. Repeat this until you have a nice, tapered roll the length of your baking sheet. Alternatively, just because we're making "french bread" doesn't mean it needs to LOOK like french bread. You can make sandwich rolls, round rolls, whatever shape bread you're looking for. Just make sure that you score the top of the bread before you put it in the oven.