Baguettes. The symbol of Paris and a cause of the French Revolution.
I still remember tasting a really good baguette, hot from the oven, during our Paris stopover. This was after a couple of weeks in the Languedoc region, where we stayed in a rambling stone house in a village and I went wild for artichokes, slow-braised rabbit, salty crumbly roquefort cheese, baked camembert, and the freshest platter of oysters, mussels and other seafood in the small seaside town (where we sat by the shore and looked onto the oyster beds). During that time, we had good bread – but the cheese and seafood stood out for me.
Then, we landed in Paris for 1.5 days en route to Italy by the night train. On our only afternoon in the city, I saw a boulangerie on a street corner. A long-ish queue was forming – we had unwittingly stumbled on bread o’clock – and there was a warm yeasty smell of crispy crust and light chewy crumb in the air. When I got to the front of the queue, I asked for a baguette and (miraculously) had almost correct change. The woman smiled indulgently at my open-eyed tourist-y demeanor and quickly moved onto the next customer.
The baguette was warm and fragrant in my hands. Outside the boulangerie, I couldn’t resist breaking off a piece and tasting it.
It was, I was certain, the tastiest bread I had ever had.
It was above all a beautiful white bread, because there was a sweet delicate taste that lingered. Yet the dough may have had a little sourdough starter, because it had a toothsome savoury note that gave it body (unlike the airy, almost bland samples we had found in the previous two weeks). It must have been properly fermented, because there was so much flavour that match the heady scent and begged to be savoured. Even though many, many people had told us it is rude to eat in the street, I kept breaking off more pieces of the baguette all the way back to our modest hotel. Mr Gander was a little horrified at my social faux pas.
A couple of years later, during a brief attendance at Alliance Francaise, my teacher told me it was ok to eat baguette (but only baguette) in the street, especially if you are a school child taking pieces of baguette from your nanny’s basket. I choose to believe the Parisians indulge baguette-enamoured tourists in the same way they cultivate a child’s baguette palate.
Recently, we’ve been heading to Labancz in Rozelle for a late lunch, because they serve up a mean steak pie. On our second visit, I asked for toast with jam so I could taste their bread. I got half of a baguette, split in two. It was so hot it almost burnt my fingers, and I was sure it had just come out of the oven. The baguette was crusty, super crusty. Inside, it was white, chewy, light yet flavoursome (I recall reading Labancz does not do sourdough baguettes, and uses a poolish starter instead).
It was almost like that baguette in Paris. The deeply scored, light brown crust was a thing of beauty.
A woman came in and asked about bread and baking. Someone brought out a bucket that was covered in splashes of flour and water and explained enthusiastically. It was as though a photo from the River Cottage bread handbook had come to life. I nibbled on the last bit of baguette and thought about baking, brick ovens, and baguettes.
Anis Bouabsa’s Baguettes, formula from the Fresh Loaf
The words ‘[Bouabsa] won this year’s Best Baguette’ caught my attention. Anis Bouabsa, who was then 28 years old, won the title Best Baker in France in 2008 and sparked a flurry of home bakers around the world who tried to recreate his baguette formula at home. The Guardian reports that Bouabsa’s winning loaf is a ‘baguette de tradition, patented in 1830’.
An entry on the Fresh Loaf summarised Bouabsa’s formula and technique as:
Flour 500 gms (about 3.85 cups of AP flour)
Water 375 gms (about 13.25 oz or about 1-2/3 cups)
Yeast 1/4 tsp (for instant yeast)
Salt 10 gms (about 2 tsp)
1. Mix ingredients and knead.
2. Ferment for 1 hour, folding every 20 minutes.
3. Refrigerate for 21 hours.
4. Divide right out of refrigerator. Rest for one hour.
6. Proof for 45 minutes.
7. Score and Bake at 250C (480F) for 20-25 (?) min.
My attempt at the Anis Bouabsa baguettes
I reduced the amount to:
Flour 200 gms (I used baker’s flour rather than plain flour …)
Water 150 gms
Yeast not quite 1/8 tsp instant yeast
Salt 4 gms
This was the first outing for my new Bosch kitchen mixer’s dough hook. The hook mixed the flour and water together quite well, I only needed to scrape down the bowl once. I can’t wait to use this with very wet dough, like focaccia, ciabatta or brioche.
After kneading I dutifully followed the instructions to ‘fold’ the dough – the dough became noticeably easier to handle towards the end. The next day, I more or less followed the instructions to divide and shape the dough into baguette-ish shapes. While it was resting and proofing, I covered the dough with a oiled glad wrap to prevent it drying out. After the dough went into the oven, I threw in a few ice cubes to create steam. The main thing I didn’t do was score the bread, because the dough seemed too soft to stand up to scoring.
Probably because of that, the baguettes didn’t rise as much as I had hoped. The result wasn’t as blistered (or let’s face it, as beautiful) as baguettes from bakeries, but the ‘baguettes’ still had a decent rise and sported a dark brown, crackly, crust. The bread crumb was large and moist, and looked almost like Turkish bread. Even though it wasn’t a sourdough, it was very tasty and just chewy enough. It went beautifully with soft cheeses.
Friends at the dinner party finished all of the still-warm bread within a couple of minutes, before I could take a photo (oops).
I also can’t wait to make this again, with proper cuts in the dough and a properly crackly, blistered, crunchy crust.