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29 February 2008

Dairing Bakers: (not quite) French Bread

I've made bread before, and it's not hard, but I've never worried about getting things exactly as the recipe says. In fact, my Dad teases my Mom about never making the same thing twice, and I seem to have followed in her footsteps: I often will play with things a little bit. So needing to do it exactly the way the recipe said was part of the challenge for me. The next big challenge was finding time to do it, as the recipe requires that I be home and thinking about bread all day long, and February has been a busy month for us.

We got up to an ice storm on Sunday the 17th, and when church was canceled, I decided that it was a great day for doing bread!

First, I printed out my recipe and had a chocolate-maple cupcake. These cupcakes were supposed to be for my Sunday School class, but with church canceled I'm stuck with 16 of them. I need to find someone to give them to before I eat them all.

Concerned that my regular all-purpose flour might not be gluteny enough, I bought some unbleached all-purpose flour when I went shopping this week. I looked at several packages trying to find where they say what the gluten content is. But I never found it. On any of the packages. So hopefully the flour is the "right" stuff. If not, I'm sure that it'll make tasty bread anyway.

So, having decided to do this, I assembled my "cast of characters," al la Pioneer Woman. I love looking at her food blog.

Now, truth be told, the Daring Bakers instructions were much more precise than what I'm going to type up. That sort of finicky directions makes me tense, so I'm not going to reproduce them. But you can find them here. I think it makes making bread a lot harder than it needs to be. But if you really really want to do it the Julia Child way, the recipe is from Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume Two by Julia Child and Simone Beck. So. Here it is: french bread.

1 3/4 t instant yeast
1/3 cup water, about 100F
3 1/2 cups (unbleached) all-purpose flour
2 1/4 t salt
1 1/4 cups tepid (70-74F) water

Proof your yeast. To do this, take your warm water and put the yeast in it. I don't usually actually use the thermometer, just get it a bit warm, yet not hot. But this being a Daring Bakers challenge, and part of the challenge to do it just right, I got out a thermometer I bought for something that I never actually made, and used it for the first time. It was kind of fun. In a fiddly sort of way. I nuked the water for 45 seconds, which was way to long: shot the temp up over 150F. So I poured a bunch out and added some cold water and then it was fine.

Add your yeast to the warm water. Stir it up a bit, and then let it sit while you measure your flour out into your big bowl. And do put it in a big bowl, it'll need room to grow.

You want to give the yeast a few minutes, so it'll start to get foamy. I've read that proofing the yeast isn't really necessary for making bread before, but the ladies that issued the challenge say that it is important for the taste of the bread, so I'm proofing it. And there's just something kind of fun about seeing the yeast all bubbly like that.

Add the yeast, the salt, and the rest of the water to your flour.

Now, although it's not actually in the recipe to do so, the squeaks coming from the high chair informed me that it was time to release my assistant from his seat, where he had been enjoying one of those tasty cupcakes.

But then I returned to my bread making. The direction say to "stir and cut liquids into the flour with a rubber spatula, pressing firmly to form a dough and making sure that all the bits of flour and unmassed pieces are gathered in." I did the stirring and cutting with the spatula, but it was still pretty crumbly, rather than soft and sticky. It was also hard to work in the bowl with the spatula, so I went ahead and turned it out onto the counter.

It was about this point that my assistant finished up whatever it was in the living room that he'd been doing, and he joined me for the kneading of the bread. I let him check out the dough, then I got to work on it.

I kneaded it a bit, just to make sure that it really was too dry, then I added a small slosh of water, right onto my dough ball. It didn't take much and it started to act more like good bread dough. Once I'd formed it into a ball, Monkey informed me that he needed to have some turns kneading the dough too. First I took pictures of him kneading it.

But it didn't really do justice to the Monkey kneading bread, so I also took a movie. As a result of my assistant's efforts, it actually took a little longer than the recipe said to knead the dough, but I thought it was worth the time. Oh, and I also learned that it's difficult to keep the camera steady while kneading. But I didn't do too badly.

Then, the bread is supposed to rest for 3-4 minutes. So we checked the weather. It's still yucky. We also stopped by the computer room and said hello to Monkey's dad. Then we returned to the kitchen.

We kneaded the bread just a little more, then got the big bowl ready to put the bread in for rising. The bread is supposed to grow to 3 1/2 times its current (small) size. The recipe suggests measuring 10 1/2 cups - 3 1/2 times it's current mass - and pouring the water into the bowl to mark where it needs to grow to. I took a picture instead.

Then, you dump out the water, dry the bowl completely, and grease it with butter to keep the bread from sticking to it. When I put bread in to rise, I like to sort of roll the dough around to get the grease on all sides. Helps keep the moisture in. My kitchen is pretty cool, I don't think that it's really the 70 degrees that the bread needs to rise, so I turned my oven to warm, then when it was preheated, I turned it back off. Just enough heat to make a cozy place for the bread to rise. The recipe suggests that you can also just turn your oven light on to keep things just a bit warm in there, if your kitchen (or your kitchen counter) is too cold for bread to rise on. Cover the bread with plastic wrap, then a towel, and let it rise 3-4 hours, until 3 1/2 times as big as it was.

At this point, I decided that I had no idea what was going on with the shape of the bread, so while I was waiting I went and googled "Julia Child french bread" and found these videos on pbs.org. And I learned that I had not gotten nearly enough kneading in before I set it to rise. I'm looking at the lady's french bread dough and thinking that it looks like it's a lot of fun to work with, and thinking that I may want to try this again sometime! That, and her kneading technique is fabulous; I want to whip my bread around like that! The technique they suggest is slightly different from this month's recipe's instructions, so I'm sticking to the instructions.

No pictures of the second rise, it looks remarkably like the first.

I divide my dough in to three sections, even using my scale. I'm trying so hard to do it all right, but by this point in the process, having looked at those videos, I'm a bit disheartened by all the things that I've already done wrong. But I finish it out to see how it turns out.

My dough has not been kneaded nearly enough. And it wasn't moist enough to begin with, and at this point in baking, that's starting to be a problem. I get 2 baguettes and one of the round loaves (I forget the fancy name). And I cook them, dousing them with my spray bottle every 3 minutes for the first little bit, just like the recipe says to do. And they come out of the oven Hard.Like.Rocks. There's no fluffy-ness here. No nice air pockets like some of the other bakers have. They're dense and tough and chewy. Not exactly what I had in mind. They also taste a bit salty. It's some of the worst bread I've ever made.

A few days later, I try again. I use more water. I knead about 850 times. It takes more like 30 minutes than the 5-10 that the recipe says that I should be taking for this. At the end, not only are my wrists and arms completely worn out, but I have some great bread dough. Rise, flatten, rise again, shape, it's looking pretty good. I go out to vote in the Primaries while my bread rises. And I lock my keys in the car. And I have no spare on me. (I carry one in my wallet now.) And my good friend Jenny comes to rescue me. And my bread rises for an extra 2-3 hours in its final rise, because I can't get into my house to finish baking it. Oops. By the time my husband comes home from work with his nice set of house keys it's looking a bit flat. Not a good sign I bake it up anyway: there's a lot of WORK in that there dough! This batch of bread is better than the first, even with the super long rise. And it's got places where there used to be air pockets. But the extra time was too much for the bread and it remains flat flat flat.

The plan is to try again. Today, the day that we post, is the first opportunity I've had to try this very long recipe again, so I'll have to make another post if it turns out. Third time's the charm, right?


MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I'm so happy you've joined our group! With your spirit and energy, dad gum there will be bread! It's incredible what life will throw at us sometimes. I do hope three's charm but if it's not, don't give up. Never give up.

Tracy said...

So sorry to read about your difficulties. Your little guy is soooo cute!

Mer said...

I love seeing your little boy helping out. What a joy.

Ritsumei said...

Well, three's mostly the charm. I sorta burnt it a bit, but the inside is still delicious! I'm pretty partial to my Monkey & he's such fun to be with!

Keeley said...

Oh my good gravy, that bread looks AMAZING!

G. Parker said...

Bread making is a pain...grin. But I did find a sight that has a simply wonderful recipe that seems to work right each time. Of course, I have a bread machine that I make the dough in, so I guess that's cheating...grin. You might check it out. http://www.goodbyecitylife.com/free/french_bread.htm Good luck on the next batch!!


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