|Portuguese Bread Soup: Lisbon. Look how beautiful it is!|
I seriously have dreams about that bread. I go to a bakery and pick up a loaf, thump it on the bottom and hear that hollow reverberation sink into the soft inners of the hearty bread. I smell that incredible richness that can only come from the fabulous four: flour, yeast, salt, and water, and I gently squeeze that loaf of euphoria until it crackles its own song in my ear. Yes, this happens in real life, not just my dreams. I didn't exactly accomplish the crackly crust, but it was a decent crust that yielded to an extremely soft inside that was so satisfying I ate the whole bâtard between dinner and breakfast this morning. The remaining two I put in the freezer (Shh, don't tell the frenchies!).
My favorite part of this entire process, besides kneading, was the sound of the bread coming out of the oven. It was wonderful! I took the loaves out, transferred them to a cooling rack, and they started to crackle as if they were stretching after a long nap. What a beautiful sigh it was, relief from the super hot oven. After their 2-3 hour rest, it was time to enjoy their hard work, and it was worth every second. The bread was rich, as the yeast had its time to do its work. It was not too salty and it was far from bland. The bread was the best bread I have made, and on my first try I felt like a superhero. All thanks to Julia.
Follow this link to Epicurious to see Julia's step-by-step instructions. I won't copy and paste them, but I'll walk you through my experience.
It is a time-consuming process, so you will need a full day's dedication. There is an option to lengthen the process by refrigerating or freezing the dough at certain steps, but I'm not sure if the integrity of the bread will remain fully intact if you try to play with nature's process. I did it all in one day, and it took about 9 hours from the start to a piece of bread in my mouth. To be honest, it doesn't take too much active time, but a lot of patience and waiting.
The first action is to dissolve the yeast in warm water and then mix all of the ingredients together. They combine easily if you keep mixing at a good rate. Then you fold it out onto a floured board and let the slapping begin. I slapped and folded, slapped and folded until I reached a soft dough, which I continued to knead. The kneading probably took me 5-7 minutes until I reached what I thought was a decent bread dough: soft and smooth and it returns to its shape if you squish it down a little. At that time, it was ready for the first rest (3 hours). I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and a folded towel. Then I set it on a cushioned chair in the middle of my kitchen, where the air conditioning vents wouldn't reach it (no drafts!).
It tripled in volume by the end of the three hours and it was time for the deflation and subsequent second rising. I flattened the dough, and I didn't have many big bubbles, but I pinched a couple out, then I folded it into a little globe and returned it to the bowl. Also, I didn't oil the bowl like some people mentioned doing--it really isn't necessary, and I feel like that would do something to the dough when you incorporate it. I don't know--I guess these techniques work differently for everyone. My kitchen mantra: do what makes you feel good, and your food will be gracious in return. This second rise was 1.5 hours until doubled.
Then it was time to act fast and form the loaves. I cut the dough in three and let it rest 5 minutes so the gluten could get its groove on. Then I formed them into the bâtard loaves which involved flattening into an oval and folding it twice lengthwise (with the same oval-flattening between the folds). They rested on a baking sheet covered in kitchen towels prepped with flour. I covered them with another floured towel and plastic over top of it all. They then rested until three times their size (1.5 more hours)--I put empty paper towel rolls in between the to impede touching in the rising process and I had no problem.
The only tricky part came when Julia was describing how to flip the loaves onto the lightly buttered baking sheet. She suggested covering strong cardboard or a piece of plywood in cornmeal or pulverized pasta. I generally act out the actions in my head for techniques that I read before I try them, and in my mind the kitchen was covered in cornmeal from flipping all over the place. My solution? I sprinkled some cornmeal on the loaves and then I took my prepared baking pan and inverted it on top of the resting loaves. Gently, as to not destroy the 6 hours of rising yeast-action, I flipped the loaves over on the pan and didn't have to suffer a cleaning catastrophe. I guess this is from my training flipping Spanish Tortilla de Patata... I did get lazy with the slashing though, so I'll work on that--I just took some scissors and clipped the top, but to make it pretty you really need a sharp knife or a razor. Next time...
To Julia--our great guide to French cuisine, curiosity in kitchen, and a true passion for all that tastes good in this world. Cheers!