Monday, April 9, 2007

Baguettes, Y'all!

As some of you may know, I've been experimenting with bread lately. I've been cutting my teeth, for the last few weeks, on a pretty basic Italian bread recipe, and I've decided to branch out a bit. I made baguettes the other day, with, get this... very considerable success! I have to say, I'm pretty proud of myself here, folks. Baguettes, while not exactly difficult, per se, are one of the more technically demanding forms of bread to make, and I'm happy to reiterate that mine came out really quite well. Now, they can't be technically considered baguettes, as they're not quite long enough (hold the jokes, people). You need a professional oven to make true baguettes. They were, rather, miniature versions of the same. But the dough was true, and that's the real test.

Baguette dough, or for that matter any traditional french bread dough, involves two pre-ferments (pate fermentee, or "scrap dough," and poolish, so named for the Polish bakers who supposedly invented it), which distinguishes this kind of bread from a more simple one-day bake, such as the aforementioned basic Italian bread. Creating the pre-ferments involved really nothing more than mixing some flour, water and yeast the day before, the pate fermentee being refrigerated overnight, while the poolish was fermented overnight at room temperature. Both of these pre-ferments are really quite impressive once they're ready to incorporate into the dough the next day, the yeast having produced some pretty aggressive bubbling.

Why bother with the pre-ferments, you ask? Well, the purpose of the pate fermentee is to impart a slightly sour flavor (somewhat akin to a sourdough starter, the sour flavor being the result of the acetic acid which develops during refrigeration), while the poolish develops gluten, which gives the final dough its extensibility, which helps in shaping the loaves.

On the baking day, the pre-ferments are incorporated into the rest of the dough, and it's pretty smooth sailing from there on out, although I have to say that the end result is a very sticky dough which can be a bit tricky to work with. I, myself, don't yet have the skills to knead this dough by hand, and relied heavily on my pastry scraper, so at this point I'm still a bit of a candy-ass, I suppose. But after baking the loaves in my newly-acquired baguette pan (yes, you DO need a baguette pan to really do this right), my baguettes turned out as well as any I've ever bought at a bakery, so I'm considering this endeavor to have been a success!


The Pastry Pirate said...

'Course I'm going to have something to say about this, good Sir...

I have seen smaller baguettes called baguettini. Really. I know, I giggled too.

I've never used a baguette recipe that was more than poolish and the usual day-of lean dough ingredients. I would think the addition of pate fermentee may have been the problem behind the stickiness of your dough - the baguette doughs I've worked with have been pretty easy to work with and never sticky.

You can bake baguettes without a "candy-ass" mold or specially shaped pan. The key is to get yourself an ad hoc couche (a real couche is a heavy canvas). I use a tea towel (a woven one that feels like linen, not anything fringey) spread on my biggest cutting board right before I do the final shaping. Fold one edge of the tea towel to create a lip, sprinkle some coarse ground semolina in a line along the lip, do your final shaping and then gently lay the baguette on the semolina. Then pick up the tea towel on the other side of the baguette and create another lip there, so you've made a nice cozy spot for the baguette to nest in and also keep it separated from the next piece of dough (you are making more than one at a time, right?)

When you've got your baguettes or baguettini all lined up, fold over the rest of the tea towel to cover them for the bench rest. When you're ready to bake (or, I should say, when they're ready to be baked), the dough should be firm enough for you to transfer them to the sheet pan or wood block or whatever you're using. If they can't hold their shape without the help of a mold, there's something wrong with the dough.

Carry on.

tommy said...

The recipe with pate fermentee is one I've found in a couple of books, one by Rose Berenbaum and the other by Maggie Glazer, and it turns out they're the same recipe, originally that of the Acme bakery in Berkeley. I'll give it a go without the PF next time and see what happens. As for the baguette pan... well, I'm a bit of a gear geek (I am a climber, after all, or was in my better days, perhaps I should say...), and I like the perforated pattern it leaves on the bottoms of the baguettes. The pan holds three of them, incidentally, which is exactly what the recipe yields, so it works out perfectly in that regard.