My journey into bread making started about 6 years ago. It’s hard to believe, but internet resources were scare back then (YouTube wasn’t created until 2006, about the same time as my bread journey began). Recipes were readily available, along with some pictures, but videos and step-by-step instruction was not. So I found a few recipes, bought some yeast and flour, and headed to the kitchen. For the first two years, it was not a pretty scene. I would try a recipe, produce something that more closely resembled a football than a loaf of bread, then head back to the grocery store to buy a loaf, discouraged. A couple months later I would try again, with more or less the same results.
It is said that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. One day I realized that this was my problem. I had been trying to achieve this oft-cited state of “smooth and elastic” without really knowing what it meant. In the process, I was producing very firm, dry dough. Since I had already wasted a ridiculous amount of flour and yeast – which are thankfully quite inexpensive – I decided I could afford a little more dough in the trash can to give it one more try. I was going to do the opposite of what I had been doing and see what happened.
Once again I started with the water, yeast, and a touch of salt and sugar. I added the flour a cup at a time as called for in the recipe, but stopped short of using the full amount this time, leaving the dough a bit sticky. I turned it out onto a very lightly floured counter top and kneeded gently, just until the dough became a little less sticky and held together. Then I put it in the oiled bowl, covered it, and waited. I just couldn’t stand it after about 30 minutes, so I peeked. Miracle of miracles, it was rising! When it finally went in the oven, I sat on the floor staring through the window of the oven watching it every minute. Maybe I was a bit insane, but I had finally made something that resembled bread, so I felt a little less crazy that day.
If I had known Eugene Spagnoli back then, I would never have spent two crazy years trying to learn to make bread. I would have gotten the basics in just one lesson, much like the students today at his bread class at the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club. Eugene is a soft spoken retired music teacher who has spent many of his retirement days exploring the art of yeast breads. The years of practice were evident in his deft handling of the dough today.
Eugene goes through the bread-making motions so effortlessly that we would have missed many of the finer points were it not for his lovely wife, Marian, who is clearly the yin to his yang. She called our attention to many of his processes, and skillfully reigned in our chit chat so that we would not miss any of the stories and tips Eugene had to share. I neglected to ask if she had also been a teacher, but she sure has the crowd control chops of an experienced educator. They make such a great pair!
Eugene shared two basic recipes with us today – one for a white dough that he uses for dinner and sandwich rolls, and one for a tasty whole wheat honey-seed loaf. Both were absolutely fabulous and I
Students gather to watch the mixer do the work
will definitely be making them at home. When I do, I will share the recipes with you. But my ulterior motive for attending was to pick his brain about achieving that crunchy crust for artisan loaves. I suspected it would involve steam, but I wanted to know his technique. I was right, steam was involved – not just a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven, but also periodic spritzing of water on the loaves during baking as well.
Eugene is also a firm believer in bread flour, which is high in gluten and gives that lovely chewy texture that we are all so fond of in bakery bread. He also likes unbleached flour, a philosophy with which I am in total agreement. Why take all the goodness out of the wheat and try to put it back later (which is what the bleaching process does)?
Without any more specific information than that (he’s going to do another class, so I didn’t want to steal his thunder with the other students), I came home and got to work. The results follow.
A huge thanks goes to Eugene for sharing his years of trial and error so that I can have immediate gratification! You can catch his classes and mine at Cape Fear Food & Wine Club, hosted by The Seasoned Gourmet. I will be leaving the bread classes to the master from this point forward.
I used up all my bread flour and am too lazy to go to the store. So today I am using all-purpose flour, which will yield a finer crumb in the final product. That will be just fine with me for today. For chewier bread, substitute bread flour for the all-purpose. I achieved my crunchy crust, which is what this was all about for me.
Easy Bakery-Style Baguettes – Makes 2 loaves
This also makes great submarine sandwich rolls if cut into 4 or 6 equal pieces before the second rise.
2 packets (2 ½ teaspoons) Instant Rise Dry Active Yeast
5 cups All Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Sugar
Fresh Herbs, if desired (I used thyme)
2 cups Water (slightly warm, no more than 110oF)
½ cup Oil (canola for a neutral taste, olive oil if preferred)
Note about Warm Water: If your water is too hot, you will kill the yeast and your dough will not rise. It is better to err on the side of caution and use room temperature water if you don’t have an instant-read thermometer to verify the water temperature. It may take a little longer to rise, but rise it will.
Place your water and oil in a large mixing bowl. Mix the dry ingredients together in another bowl or shake together in a Ziploc bag. Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. If you can’t get it past being shaggy, add a bit more water. If it is really sticky, add a bit more flour. Use very small amounts of water and flour to make these adjustments, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Once the dough comes together in a ball, turn it out onto a lightly floured counter or board. Kneed the dough for about 3 minutes, until it is smooth and less sticky.
Lightly oil and bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Turn it once to coat with oil. Cover and let rise until doubled in volume (time varies with room temperature, humidity, etc). Remove the dough from the bowl, cut into 2 equal pieces, and shape into baguettes. If you have a baguette form, oil it and place the loaves on it now. If you do not, you can arrange them freeform on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal or lined with parchment paper to prevent sticking. You will not move the loaves again – they will be baked after the second rise on the pan they rise on. Rest until doubled in size again, then prepare the oven.
Preheat oven to 450oF. Boil 2 quarts of water and pour it into a rectangular baking pan. Place the pan with the boiling water on the bottom shelf of the oven. Place a rack in the center of the oven and place the baguette pan on it. Spritz the loaves with water, repeating every 10 minutes of bake time. Bake until deep golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped, about 20 minutes.
Cool for a few minutes before slicing. To freeze, cool completely then wrap tightly in plastic wrap.