Friday, February 29, 2008

A Real Challenge

It's the end of the month, so that means it's time for another Daring Baker's Challenge. This month, our hostesses were Mary from The Sour Dough and Sara from I Like to Cook. The recipe was Julia Child's French Bread.

This recipe was definitely a challenge for me. I don't bake bread frequently, but this was still quite different than any bread I've made before. That's what made it a challenge...while not technically challenging (though it was time and labor intensive) it was just different. But, with careful reading of the extremely thorough instructions, everything came out wonderfully!

I started out by letting my Kitchen Aid do the mixing for me, but I knew I wanted to the kneading by hand. I'm a learn-by-doing kind of person, and I figured I would get more out of hand-kneading than I would by letting the kitchen aid do it. Just 8-10 minutes of kneading made for quite the transformation in the dough!

Next it was time to let the dough rise. The recipe was very specific about having the right temperature for the dough to rise appropriately. Knowing that we like to keep our house cooler than the 72 -74 degrees specified, I tried the tip suggested in the recipe. A few minutes before the dough needed to rise, I turned the oven on to a low setting for about 45 seconds, then turned it right off. When I put the dough in about five minutes later, I had a warm-but-not-hot place for the dough to rise. It seemed to work well!

I punched the dough down, kneaded it a bit, then back in the warm-but-not-hot oven it went for the second rise. At this point, it was late, so I stuck my dough in the fridge to finish it up the next day.

When I woke up on Sunday, it was time to form the loaves. The recipe gave instructions for forming loves of a variety of sizes and shapes. I decided to make two small round loaves and a batard. Round and "long and skinny" are the two primary shapes for French bread, and have very different methods for shaping. I decided this would give me some experience with both shapes.

I divided the dough into three roughly equal pieces and allowed them to rest for a few minutes to relax the gluten. The recipe explains that since French bread bakes free standing, as opposed to any sort of pan, the dough has to be worked and shaped correctly to develop an outer "gluten cloak" that allows the bread to hold its shape while baking. So, the shaping of the loaves is actually critical in getting a good French Bread. The shaping instructions are quite detailed and lengthy, so rather than repost them, check it out in the recipe at the end of this post. First I shaped the batard followed by the two round loaves. Once the loaves are formed, they are placed on a stiff floured cloth to rise one final time. After the final rise, I transferred them to a baking sheet (another somewhat intricate process), and made the tell-tale slits that make a nice French bread loaf.

Into the oven they went. Another important aspect in baking French bread is steam; it is critical in forming the wonderful crusty outside that is what really makes it French bread. Most home ovens are not equipped for steam so we had to improvise. Right before going in the oven, the loaves were spritzed with a fine mist of water. Then, as soon as they went in, some ice was dropped in a pan of hot water on the bottom of the stove. This created a burst of steam for the oven. Then, every three minutes for the first 12 minutes of baking time, I quickly opened the oven door and spritzed the loaves with water. By the time I opened the oven for the final spritz, it was starting to smell really good!! After about 25 minutes in the oven, out came some nicely browned, very crusty loaves of French bread!!

The loaves came out of the oven around 4:00, giving them the requisite 2 hours of cooling time before dinner. I invited my mom and brother over for a dinner of Black Bean Chili and fresh French bread. The chili was the perfect complement to the bread, and between the four of us, we polished off half the pot of chili and just over 2 loaves of bread.

This is probably not a recipe I will make frequently, mainly due to the time and effort involved. But, given that, the finished product is well worth the effort.

For the recipe, visit Mary's blog post about this challenge. She provides the full thorough, detailed recipe with pictures, something I would have loved to have had in figuring out how to shape my bread.

All in all, this was a great recipe, and I think I learned more during this challenge than I have in any of the other Daring Baker challenges I've done yet. Thanks for a great challenge!