On 9. May I finished reading 25 Loaves by William Alexander, and it inspired me to start making bread for the first time in 40 years. It’s now exactly ten months later (9. January) and I have made baguettes every Friday night/Saturday morning (apart from a quick trip to Boulder in November for my dad’s deathbed). The premise of the book is that Bill wants to replicate the perfect French country loaf, or boule, and so commits to making bread every week for a year, or until he gets it. You can find the book in all the usual places, plus Bill’s own website: www.williamalexander.com, which also has recipes.
It’s now exactly ten months later (9. January) and I have made baguettes every Friday night/Saturday morning (apart from a quick trip to Boulder in November for my dad’s deathbed). I’ve also made aromatic rye bread, black rye with cocoa and spices, rye with sour cherries, a variety of white breads, Italian rosemary bread, lavender bread, French spiral herb bread, and most recently Fig Challah — see previous blog posts.
Here is today’s bread, and here is the recipe, with (as always) a printable .pdf at the bottom. This is a modified version of Bill Alexander’s formula and technique, and using both dried yeast (levure) and starter (levain). If you love bread, you will find the process and the result very satisfying!
Bill Alexander says: The long, cold fermentation brings out the natural sugars of the wheat. I usually ferment the dough overnight in the refrigerator, but I’ve also made these the same day with a 4-hour refrigerated fermentation, and I can’t tell the difference.
This recipe makes two normal-sized baguettes, as shown above.
250g levain – how to make this is described elsewhere
250g water, hand hot, with a spoonful of sugar
1 tsp (4-5g) instant yeast
250g bread flour
250g all-purpose flour10g salt
Prepare the dough:
1. Feed the levain at least 2 hours or the night before beginning. [I bring my levain up to room temperature on Friday afternoon. To feed the levain, stir together 125g flour and 125g water until smooth, then beat into the existing levain. Incorporate lots of air, and let it sit for an hour or two to develop.]
2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the hand-hot water, a spoonful of sugar, the dried yeast, and the levain. Mix well and set aside in a warm place for five minutes until bubbly.
3. Mix all ingredients and ‘autolyse’ for about 25 minutes – that is, allow the dough to rest, covered by a towel. This lets the gluten relax and re-align. Then flour your countertop and knead by hand for about five minutes until dough is silky and elastic. It should be very slightly sticky, but no longer picking up flour from the counter. Use a dough scraper as necessary.
4. Using your scales, divide the dough in half; each will be about 550g. Shape into balls. Spray two glass bowls (like pudding basins) with Pam or oil. Plop one ball of dough in each and cover with oil-misted plastic wrap. If doing an overnight fermentation, place in a bowl, cover closely with oiled plastic wrap, and put immediately in the refrigerator. For same-day baking, ferment at room temperature for 2 hours, then ferment in the refrigerator an additional 4 hours.
5. In the morning, remove both bowls from refrigerator and wait for dough to reach temperature (2 to 3 hours). I put the oven on warm for a few minutes, turn it off, and place the cold dough in the slightly warmed oven (or in the airing cupboard, if you have one). If you warm it up this way, the dough should be at room temperature in an hour. If you’re really pressed for time, try microwaving each bowl for 20 seconds; wait five minutes, and microwave for another 20 seconds.
Once the dough is at room temperatures, form the loaves and proof:
6. On a floured countertop, take each ball of dough and roll it back and forth with your hands to form a long thin log. When it’s the right shape, place the newly formed loaf in a baguette form. When both are in the baguette form, over with a clean tea towel and let rise in a warm place for one hour.
7. Place an old cast-iron skillet on the bottom shelf of your oven and a pizza stone near the middle rack. Preheat oven to 450°F/210°C. When you are five minutes out from baking time, put on a kettle to heat.
Score and bake:
8. If you don’t have a baguette form, transfer the loaves onto parchment paper and from there onto a baking sheet. Alternatively, you can put them onto paper and then transfer the paper onto your peel. Trust me, it’s easier to use baguette form!
9. Using a fresh single-edged razor or a lame, make several overlapping diagonal slashes on each baguette.
10. Place the baguette form in the oven, directly on the baking stone (if you have one) OR transfer the baguettes to the stone with a clean jerk back of the baking sheet. Quickly pour a cup of boiling water into the skillet and shut the oven door. Do all this quickly so that the steam stays in the oven.
11. Bake for 20-25 minutes until crust is a rich brown and center registers 210°F or a rap on the bottom of the loaf produces a hollow percussion sound.
12. Cool on a rack for at least one hour before serving. [Yeah, good luck with that!]
1. Stick to the recipe exactly, because using the correct quantities, proportions, and ingredients are all very important for successful results.
2. Use scales for the measurements including the water; don’t convert to cups or measuring jugs, as they are too inaccurate.
3. Use proper unbleached white bread flour with at least 12% protein — I use King Arthur Organic Bread Flour. Check the ingredients list on the side of the flour bag: protein may show in grams per serving but just work it out, it needs to be 12g of protein per 100g of flour. Plain or all-purpose flour is not the best for making bread because it doesn’t have enough protein/gluten to create the right texture. As noted, I use half bread flour and half organic all-purpose flour, and the results have been excellent.