Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mastering the Art of Patience (French Bread) with Julia

I know things have been blowing up all over the interwebs about Julia Child's centennial. The woman deserves all the standing ovations she receives. After conquering this recipe, I can attest to her uncanny ability to write a literal step-by-step recipe, which will lead you to some level of success no matter what.  The way I write recipes is not so calculated, because I never calculate myself when cooking--however, baking is another story and measurements are necessary for the science to work. I have worked well in the past with brioches and other sweeter breads (I think whenever you add sugar, you're going to have an easier time), but I have always been intimidated by the time-consuming effort of making french bread at home.

Portuguese Bread Soup: Lisbon. Look how beautiful it is!
I spent a few weeks in France with a dear friend of mine, whose mom made fresh bread everyday. She was a marvel. The beautiful round boules would sometimes come studded with dried fruits, but the plain loaf is what changed my life. I couldn't believe that fresh bread was an attainable part of everyday life--but it was, and I am adamant on getting that recipe one day or another. Then you add on the baguettes I got at the bakeries in France and basically any bread at the bakeries in Europe (Barcelona has a very large amount per capita of very accomplished bakers), and I can seriously scratch off the bucket list that I have had a fair amount of spectacular bread in my life already--as if that was an option.

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...

Finally, it was time to put the loaves in the oven. The oven needs to be preheated a half hour before you put the loaves in to ensure that the temperature reaches 450º--this is crucial because the bread needs a hot oven to create that luscious crust and soft inside.

After 25 minutes, it is time to transfer to a cooling rack and wait until completely cool. Yeah, this is super tempting, so I recommend leaving the house and coming back later. The result is majestic. Those lowly four ingredients turn into slices of heaven, seriously. You could enjoy with butter, oil, or just plain because they are so flavorful. I definitely challenge you to try this recipe--it is very rewarding.

To Julia--our great guide to French cuisine, curiosity in kitchen, and a true passion for all that tastes good in this world. Cheers!


  1. Madre mia ! ! ! Qué pinta tiene esoo! ! Eres muy máquina ShannoN! no words ! !! ! ! Eres increible !

  2. I forgot to tell you before, but my mum says thanks for the marvel ;)