Unlike many of my fellow Daring Bakers, I cannot claim to have watched Julia Child's cooking shows or even read any of her books until recently. I was more interested in Asian, Mexican, or Italian cooking, anyway. That's what I told myself, but in truth it's because I thought her cooking style was beyond my skill level.
What I really needed was a push from someone who had more faith in my cooking skills than I did, and that push came last fall from one of my neighbors. She asked me to make Julia's chocolate mousse for her sometime and even loaned her copy of The Way to Cook. How could I say no to that? So I tried it and found it wasn't as hard as I thought. Or perhaps I've grown a little and now have an appreciation for everything Julia had to share. And how could I not appreciate a woman who started cooking in her 40s? It was quite inspiring to this self-taught home cook in her early 40s.
So I tackled the mousse and then her amazing French onion soup, and both turned out well. So when Mary of The Sourdough and Sara of I Like to Cook announced that the February Daring Baker's challenge would be Julia Child's French bread, I was excited. Having spent the last few months learning to bake artisan breads certainly was a factor in my excitement. Something new to try!
All of our challenges have some basic requirements, and these were the requirements for the French bread challenge:
- You must follow the recipe exactly as written. No sponges or poolishes allowed.
- You may not add anything but flour, salt, yeast, and water to the dough.
- You must make at least one loaf of plain French bread.
- You must make the bread in “free form” fashion. No loaf pans, bannetons, brotforms or baguette pans may be used.
I followed the rules and made one plain batard as well as a boule and an epi. The epi was a new loaf for me, and I followed the excellent directions for cutting the loaf provided by Kitchen Mage. I had planned to play around with some whole wheat versions this week but ran out of time.
As usual a few modification are allowed, and I did the following:
- Used the stand mixer,
- Made different shapes as well as the required baguette/batard, and
- Tried to simulate a baker's oven by using a baking stone and creating steam using ice in a preheated iron skillet.
The recipe is long, but that's because it's a master recipe. Julia gives directions for mixing and kneading by hand, but since I use a stand mixer (carpal tunnel syndrome makes it hard for me to knead for more than a minute) I've given instructions for that method. I included other notes from our wonderful hosts Mary and Sara in italics. They also provided very detailed instructions complete with photos (12 pages worth!), which you can find here. Don't let all the detail deter you from trying this bread. The details are very useful for beginning bakers.
Stand mixers vary widely in power and will respond differently to kneading the dough. Mine is an old KitchenAid 300 watt (cobalt blue) from the mid 90s, and it stresses out--actually starts dancing across the counter--if I try to knead on speeds higher than 2. Kneading at that speed worked fine for this bread.
The Daring Bakers are legion...there are so many of us now it's hard to keep track! To see many more beautiful loaves, visit The Daring Bakers Blogroll.
This recipe makes:
3 - baguettes (24” x 2”) or batards (16” x 3”), or
6 – short loaves, ficelles, 12 – 16” x 2”, or
3 – round loaves, boules, 7 – 8” in diameter, or
12 – round or oval rolls, petits pains, or
1 – large round or oval loaf, pain de menage or miche; pain boulot
Julia Child's French Bread
- stand mixer with dough hook
- bench scraper
- dough bucket or other straight-sided container with a lid, lightly coated with cooking spray (I use food service buckets, found cheap at my local warehouse club.)
- 1 or 2 canvas cloths (couche) or flat weave towels, for rising the dough
- parchment paper (if you make an epi)
- bakers peel or piece of plywood
- baking stone or red quarry tiles
- lame or razor blade, for slashing the dough
- oven thermometer
- 1¾ teaspoons instant yeast (or 1 package active dry yeast)
- ⅓ cup water (not over 100° F/38° C)
- 3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2¼ teaspoons sea salt
- 1¼ cups water (70° to 74° F/21° to 23° C)
- extra flour for dusting
- fine cornmeal
Mix the Dough (le fraisage)
- In the bowl of the stand mixer, work all the ingredients together until the dry ingredients are all wet. Attach the bowl to the mixer base and work on low speed (2 on the KitchenAid) until a dough ball is formed, stopping the mixer and scrapping the bits of flour and chunks of dough off the bottom of the bowl and pressing them into the dough ball. Continue to mix the dough on a low speed until all the bits of flour and loose chunks of dough have formed a solid dough ball.
- If the dough is very dry, add a tablespoon of water at a time until the dough comes together. If the dough is very wet, add a tablespoon of flour at a time until the dough is soft and only slightly sticky. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured kneading surface, scraping bowl clean. Dough should be soft and slightly sticky. Let the dough rest for 2 to 3 minutes while you wash and dry the bowl and the dough hook.
- Place dough back into the bowl and using the dough hook attachment at the recommended speed (low), knead the dough for about 5 to 7 minutes. At about the 5 minute mark, stop the mixer and push at the dough with your fingertips. If it springs back quickly, you have kneaded the dough enough. If it doesn’t spring back continue to knead, stopping the mixer and retesting every 2 minutes. If the dough sticks to your fingers, toss a sprinkling of flour onto the dough and continue to knead. The dough should be light and springy when it is ready. Mary also recommends finishing with about 1 to 2 minutes of hand kneading just to get a good feel for how the gluten is formed.
- Let dough rest for 3 to 4 minutes. Knead by hand for a minute. The surface should now look smooth; the dough will be less sticky but will still remain soft. It is now ready for its first rise.
- FIRST RISE (pointage premiere temps): Put the dough into your lightly greased rising container/bowl and attach the lid or cover with plastic. Put in a warm place free of drafts, such as inside the microwave or in the oven with the light on. (Julia recommended putting the bowl/container into a large plastic bag or covering with plastic, and topping with a folded bath towel. Set on a wooden surface (marble or stone are too cold), or on a folded towel or pillow, and let rise free from drafts anyplace where the temperature is around 70 degrees F. If the room is too hot, set bowl in water and keep renewing water to maintain around 70 degrees F.) Dough should take at least 3 to 4 hours to rise to 10-½ cups, tripling in size, though if you used instant yeast rising time will be faster. If temperature is lower than 70 degrees F, it will simply take longer.
- When fully risen, the dough will be humped into a slight dome, showing that the yeast is still active; it will be light and spongy when pressed. There will usually be some big bubbly blisters on the surface, and if you are using a glass bowl you will see bubbles through the glass.
- If you don’t have an oven light, like Mary, you can turn the oven on to its lowest setting about 5 minutes before you begin your rise. Leave on for 1 to 5 minutes until the temperature is around 75- 80 degrees F. Turn off oven, when you open the door to put the dough in to rise, your oven will be around 70 degrees F. Another trick is to put your dough on top of your hot water heater. Place a folded towel on top of the hot water heater and let rise. Also a heating pad works well. Mary also has used those give away shower caps from hotels to cover her bowls and the bowl covers for the metal mixing bowls work well too. Always lightly grease the plastic wrap or bowl cover so if the risen dough touches it, the dough won’t stick.
Deflating and Second Rise (rupture; pointage deuxieme temps)
- With a rubber spatula, dislodge dough from inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface, scraping bowl clean. If dough seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour. Lightly flour the palms of your hands and flatten the dough firmly but not too roughly into a circle, deflating any gas bubbles by pinching them. Lift a corner of the near side and flip it down on the far side. Do the same with the left side, then the right side. Finally, lift the near side and tuck it just under the edge of the far side. The mass of dough will look like a rounded cushion.
- Slip the sides of your hands under the dough and return it to the bowl. Cover and let rise again, this time to not quite triple, but again until it is dome shaped and light and spongy when touched. You may need to lightly re-grease your bowl and plastic wrap for the second rise to prevent sticking.
Cutting and Resting
- Loosen dough all around inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Because of its two long rises, the dough will have much more body. If it seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle lightly with flour. Making clean, sure cuts with a large knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into:3 equal pieces for long loaves (baguettes or batards) or small round loaves (boules only)5 – 6 equal pieces for long thin loaves (ficelles)10 – 12 equal pieces for small oval rolls (petits pains, tire-bouchons) or small round rolls (petits pains, champignons)2 equal pieces for medium round loaves (pain de menage or miche only)
- If you are making one large round loaf (pain de menage, miche, or pain boulot), you will not cut the dough at all and just need to follow the directions below.
- After you have cut each piece, lift one end and flip it over onto the opposite end to fold the dough into two; place dough at far side of kneading surface. Cover loosely with a sheet of plastic and let rest for 5 minutes before forming. This relaxes the gluten enough for shaping but not long enough for dough to begin rising again.
- While the dough is resting, prepare the rising surface; smooth the canvas or linen towelling on a large tray or baking sheet, and rub flour thoroughly into the entire surface of the cloth to prevent the dough from sticking.
Forming the Loaf (la tourne; la mise en forme des patons)
- Because French bread stands free in the oven and is not baked in a pan, it has to be formed in such a way that the tension of the coagulated gluten cloak on the surface will hold the dough in shape.
For Long Loaves - The Batard: (Baguettes are typically much too long for home ovens but the shaping method is the same)
- After the 3 pieces of dough have rested 5 minutes, form one piece at a time, keeping the remaining ones covered.
- Working rapidly, turn the dough upside down on a lightly floured kneading surface and pat it firmly but not too roughly into an 8 to 10 inch oval with the lightly floured palms of your hands. Deflate any gas bubbles in the dough by pinching them.
- Fold the dough in half lengthwise by bringing the far edge down over the near edge.
- Being sure that the working surface is always lightly floured so the dough will not stick and tear, which would break the lightly coagulated gluten cloak that is being formed, seal the edges of the dough together, your hands extended, thumbs out at right angles and touching. Roll the dough a quarter turn forward so the seal is on top.
- Flatten the dough again into an oval with the palms of your hands.
- Press a trench along the central length of the oval with the side of one hand.
- Fold in half again lengthwise.
- This time seal the edges together with the heel of one hand, and roll the dough a quarter of a turn toward you so the seal is on the bottom.
- Now, by rolling the dough back and forth with the palms of your hands, you will lengthen it into a sausage shape. Start in the middle, placing your right palm on the dough, and your left palm on top of your right hand.
- Roll the dough forward and backward rapidly, gradually sliding your hands towards the two ends as the dough lengthens.
- Deflate any gas blisters on the surface by pinching them. Repeat the rolling movement rapidly several times until the dough is 16 inches long, or whatever length will fit on your baking sheet. During the extension rolls, keep circumference of dough as even as possible and try to start each roll with the sealed side of the dough down, twisting the rope of dough to straighten the line of seal as necessary. If seal disappears, as it sometimes does with all purpose flour, do not worry.
- Place the shaped piece of dough, sealed side up, at one end of the flour rubbed canvas, leaving a free end of canvas 3 to 4 inches wide. The top will crust slightly as the dough rises; it is turned over for baking so the soft, smooth underside will be uppermost.
- Pinch a ridge 2 ½ to 3 inches high in the canvas to make a trough, and a place for the next piece. Cover dough with plastic while you are forming the rest of the loaves.
- After all the pieces of dough are in place, brace the two sides of the canvas with long rolling pins, baking sheets or books, if the dough seems very soft and wants to spread out. Cover the dough loosely with flour rubbed dish towel or canvas, and a sheet of plastic. Proceed immediately to the final rising, next step.
- (Mary and Sara Note: Empty paper towel tubes and/or bottles of spices work well as braces as well.)
For Long Thin Loaves – Fincelles
- Follow the steps above but making thinner sausage shapes about ½ inch in diameter. When they have risen, slash as with the Batard.
For Oval Rolls – Petits Pains, Tire-Bouchons
- Form like batards, but you will probably not have to lengthen them at all after the two foldings and sealings. Place rolls on a floured canvas about 2 – 4” apart and cover with plastic to rise. When they have risen, make either 2 parallel slashes or a single slash going from one end to the other.
For Small, Medium, or Large Round Loaves – Pain de Menage, Miches, Boules
- The object here is to force the cloak of coagulated gluten to hold the ball of dough in shape: the first movement will make cushion; the second will seal and round the ball, establishing surface tension.
- Place the dough on a lightly floured surface.
- Lift the left side of the dough with the side of your left hand and bring it down almost to the right side.
- Scoop up the right side and push it back almost to the left side. Turn the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the movement 8 – 10 times. The movement gradually smooths the bottom of the dough and establishes the necessary surface tension; think of the surface of the dough as if it were a fine sheet of rubber you were stretching in every direction.
- Turn the dough smooth side up and begin rotating it between the palms of your hands, tucking a bit of the dough under the ball as you rotate it. In a dozen turns you should have a neatly shaped ball with a little pucker of dough, le cle, underneath where all the edges have joined together.
- Place the dough pucker side up in a flour-rubbed canvas; seal the pucker by pinching with your fingers. Flour lightly, cover loosely and let rise to almost triple its size. After unmolding upside down on the baking sheet, slash with either a long central slash, two long central slashes that cross at right angles, or a semi-circular slash around half the circumference.
For Small Round Rolls – Petits Pains, Champignons
- The principles are the same here as for the preceding round loaves, but make the cushion shape with your fingers rather than the palms of your hands.
- For the second stage, during which the ball of dough is rotated smooth side up, roll it under the palm of one hand, using your thumb and little finger to push the edges of the dough underneath and to form the pucker, where the edges join together
- Place the formed ball of dough pucker side up on the flour rubbed canvas and cover loosely while forming the rest. Space the balls 2 inches apart. When risen to almost triple its size, lift gently with lightly floured fingers and place pucker side down on baking sheet. Rolls are usually too small for a cross so make either one central slash or the semi-circular cut.
For Large Oval Loaf – Pain Boulot
- Follow the directions for the round loaves except instead of rotating between the balms of your hands and tucking to form a round loaf, continue to turn the dough from the right to the left, tucking a bit of each end under the oblong loaf. In a dozen turns you should have a neatly shaped oval with tow little puckers of dough, le cles, underneath where all the edges of have joined together.
- Place the dough pucker sides up in a flour-rubbed canvas; seal the puckers by pinching with your fingers. Flour lightly, cover loosely and let rise to almost triple its size. After unmolding upside down on the baking sheet, slash with parallel slashes going diagonally across the top starting from the upper left and going to the lower right.
Final Rise (l’appret)
- The covered dough is now to rise until almost triple in volume (1-½ to 2-½ hours at around 70 degrees F). Look carefully at its pre-risen size so that you will be able to judge correctly. It will be light and swollen when risen, but will still feel a little springy when pressed. It is important that the final rise take place where it is dry; if your kitchen is damp, hot, and steamy, let the bread rise in another room or dough will stick to the canvas and you will have difficulty getting it off and onto another baking sheet. It will turn into bread in the oven whatever happens, but you will have an easier time and a better loaf if you aim for ideal conditions.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F about 30 minutes before estimated baking time.
Unmolding Dough onto the Baking Sheet (le demoulage)
- (Mary and Sara note: We are only going to describe the unmolding of the batard but the unmolding process is the same no matter the shape of your loaf or loaves. The key to unmolding without deflating your bread is slow and gentle!) The 3 pieces of risen dough are now to be unmolded from the canvas and arranged upside down on the baking sheet. The reason for this reversal is that the present top of the dough has crusted over during its rise; the smooth, soft underside should be uppermost in the oven so that the dough can expand and allow the loaf its final puff of volume. For the unmolding you will need a non-sticking intermediate surface such as a stiff piece of cardboard or plywood sprinkled with cornmeal or pulverized pasta.
- Remove rolling pins or braces. Place the long side of the board at one side of the dough; pull the edge of the canvas to flatten it; then raise and flip the dough softly upside down onto the board.
- Dough is now lying along one edge of the unmolding board: rest this edge on the right side of a lightly buttered baking sheet. Gently dislodge dough onto baking sheet, keeping same side of the dough uppermost: this is the soft smooth side, which was underneath while dough rose on canvas. If necessary run sides of hands lightly down the length of the dough to straighten it. Unmold the next piece of dough the same way, placing it to the left of the first, leaving a 3 inch space. Unmold the final piece near the left side of the sheet.
Slashing Dough (la coupe)
- (Mary and Sara Note: We will only describe the slashing for the Batard here. All other slashes for the other shapes are described in Step 6: Forming the Loaves.)
- The top of each piece of dough is now to be slashed in several places. This opens the covering cloak of gluten and allows a bulge of dough underneath to swell up through the cuts during the first 10 minutes of baking, making decorative patterns in the crust. These are done with a blade that cuts almost horizontally into the dough to a depth of less than half an inch. Start the cut at the middle of the blade, drawing toward you in a swift clean sweep. This is not quite as easy as it sounds, and you will probably make ragged cuts at first; never mind, you will improve with practice. Use an ordinary razor blade and slide one side of it into a cork for safety; or buy a barbers straight razor at a cutlery store.
- For a 16 to 18 inch loaf make 3 slashes. Note that those at the two ends go straight down the loaf but are slightly off centre, while the middle slash is at a slight angle between the two. Make the first cut at the far end, then the middle cut, and finally the third. Remember that the blade should lie almost parallel to the surface of the dough.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F/230 degrees C. As soon as the dough has been slashed, moisten the surface either by painting with a soft brush dipped in cold water, or with a fine spray atomizer, and slide the baking sheet onto rack in upper third of preheated oven. Rapidly paint or spray dough with cold water after 3 minutes, again in 3 minutes, and a final time 3 minutes later. Moistening the dough at this point helps the crust to brown and allows the yeast action to continue in the dough a little longer. The bread should be done in about 25 minutes; the crust will be crisp, and the bread will make a hollow sound when thumped.
- If you want the crust to shine, paint lightly with a brush dipped in cold water as soon as you slide the baking sheet out of oven.
- Cool the bread for 2 to 3 hours on a rack or set it upright in a basket or large bowl so that air can circulate freely around each piece. Although bread is always exciting to eat fresh from the oven, it will have a much better taste when the inside is thoroughly cool and has composed itself.
- (Mary and Sara Note: We know this will be the hardest thing to do for this challenge. But, if you do not let the French bread cool, the bread will be doughy and the crust will be soft. If you want to have warm French bread, re-heat the bread after it has cooled in a 400 degree oven, uncovered and directly on the oven rack for 10 – 12 minutes if it is unfrozen. If it has been frozen see the directions below.)
- Because it contains no fats or preservatives of any kind, French bread is at its best when eaten the day it is baked. It will keep for a day or two longer, wrapped airtight and refrigerated, but it will keep best if you freeze it – let the loaves cool first, then wrap airtight.
- To thaw, unwrap and place on a baking sheet in a cold oven; heat the oven to 400 degrees. In about 20 minutes the crust will be hot and crisp, and the bread thawed. The French, of course, never heat French bread except possibly on Monday, the baker’s holiday, when the bread is a day old.
- Canvas Care: After each bread session, if you have used canvas, brush it thoroughly to remove all traces of flour and hang it out to dry before putting away. Otherwise the canvas could become mouldy and ruin your next batch of dough.
Additional Baking Notes from Julia, Mary, and Sara
- The Simulated Baker's Oven: Baking in the ordinary way, as described in the preceding recipe, produces an acceptable loaf of bread but does not nearly approach the glory you can achieve when you turn your home oven into a baker’s oven. Merely providing yourself with the proper amount of steam, if you can do nothing else, will vastly improve the crust, the color, the slash patterns, and the volume of your bread; steam is only a matter of plopping a heated brick or stone into a pan of water in the bottom of the oven. The second provision is a hot surface upon which the naked dough can bake; this gives that added push of volume that improves both the appearance and the slash patterns. When you have the hot baking surface, you will then also need a paddle or board upon which you can transfer dough from canvas to hot baking surface. For the complete set up here is you should have, and any building-supply store stocks these items.
- For the hot baking surface: Metal will not do as a hot baking surface because it burns the bottom of the dough. The most practical and easily obtainable substance is ordinary red floor tiles ¼” thick. They come in various sizes such as 6 x 6, 6 x 3, and you only need enough to line the surface of an oven rack. Look them up under Tiles in your Directory, and ask for “quarry tiles” their official name.
- (Mary and Sara Note: When this book was written, quarry tiles had a fair amount of asbestos in them. Today, in North America and Europe, they normally are made of clay. Make sure if you decide to go purchase some quarry tiles you only purchase unglazed quarry tiles because most of the glazes used contain lead or some other nasty substance that could get transferred. A large pizza stone will also work but make sure it is at least ¼ inch thick because the thinner ones can break when used at the high heats that baking bread requires. Make sure you never put wet tiles in the oven because they can shatter or worse as the oven heats up.)
- For unmolding the risen dough from its canvas: A piece of 3/16 inch plywood about 20 inches wide.
- For sliding the dough onto the hot tiles: When you are doing 3 long loaves, you must slide them together onto the hot tiles; to do so you unmold them one at a time with one board and arrange them side by side on the second board, which takes place on the baker’s paddle, la pelle. Buy a piece of plywood slightly longer but 2 inches narrower than your oven rack.
- (Mary and Sara note: Today, you can buy a real baker’s paddle easily online or at a restaurant supply store for about the same money as a piece of plywood and it will have a bevelled edge that will make sliding loaves in and out of the oven easier.)
- To prevent dough from sticking to unmolding and sliding boards: White cornmeal or small dried pasta pulverized in the electric blender until it is the consistency of table salt. This is called fleurage.
- The steam contraption: Something that you can heat to sizzling hot on top of the stove and then slide into a pan of water in the oven to make a great burst of steam: a brick, a solid 10lb rock, piece of cast iron or other metal. A 9 x 12 inch roasting pan 2 inches deep to hold an inch of water and the hot brick.
- (Mary and Sara note: Other ways to get steam in the oven is pre-heat the oven and then to fill a pan with ice cubes put it on the lower rack and then pour warm water into the pan. The temperature difference between the ice cubes and the warm water will create steam. Also you can toss ice cubes on the bottom of the oven. Put a metal baking sheet on the bottom rack, pre-heat the oven with the baking sheet in the oven and right before you put your loaves in, spritz water onto the pan.)
- 3 - baguettes (24” x 2”) or batards (16” x 3”), or
- 6 – short loaves, ficelles, 12 – 16” x 2”, or
- 3 – round loaves, boules, 7 – 8” in diameter, or
- 12 – round or oval rolls, petits pains, or
- 1 – large round or oval loaf, pain de menage or miche; pain boulot