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TODAY

Saturday, May 25

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When I'm traveling, I make a point most everywhere I go to hit a bakery sometime during my visit. It's not that I can't go a few days or a week without bread. But to taste a region's bread is to taste its culture and history in a single bite. San Francisco has sourdough, New York has cupcakes and pizza crust, Germany has vollkornbrot and the French have baguettes.

French bread doesn't have the number of ingredients that the bread we made last month did. It's pretty simple: flour, water, yeast, a little salt and a lot of love. It takes a long time to make French bread -- at least a good four hours.

If it takes so long, why bother? First, it's a great excuse to bust out that rolling pin and roll, baby, roll. Second, unlike wheat bread, you probably have all of the ingredients on hand to make baguettes. And third, they are absolutely perfect for dinner parties. Even though the total time is four hours, the last three are basically letting the dough rise and baking the bread. This lets you get started on the main course while your bread is slowly rising.

Notice that unlike the other breads we've made, there's no sugar in this one. The yeast need to eat, and without that extra kick that honey or sugar gives them, it takes them a lot longer to eat and reproduce. This is why this bread takes a bit longer to make than the others and requires additional cycles of letting the dough rise. However, when you compare this loaf against a Jewel loaf of French bread, you'll notice a lot more body and that it keeps longer. The additional rising times do this, so the extra wait is paid off through increased flavor.

This bread was really my learner loaf; I first taught myself how to make this recipe in college. So I've made this quite a few times and have done quite a bit of research about, umm, food pairings with the bread. In theory it would be good with olive oil and garlic, or sandwiches, or maybe with some yummy goat cheese. But this stuff is more dense and doughy than what you might know from other baguettes you've tried. There are only three ways of eating this bread: with butter, more butter, and with even more butter and good jam. I suppose if you didn't have decent jam then cinnamon, sugar and butter might do. But most grocery stores carry the French jam Bon Maman -- it's really perfectly paired with this bread. And in case I hadn't said it, with butter, too. The secret of French cooking isn't missed on the staff of life.

To make French Bread, you need:
2 pkgs yeast
1/2 cup bathtub-warm water
slightly less than 1 tablespoon salt (sea salt if you have it)
2 cups lukewarm water
7 cups flour
1 egg white (optional)

1. Combine the yeast and warm water.

2. In a separate, larger bowl, mix the salt with the lukewarm water. Stir in 2 cups of flour.

3. Mix the yeast with the flour paste you've created.

4. Start adding flour 1/2 cup at a time, continually mixing the entire time. You should add about 4 to 4-1/2 cups of flour. You'll know you've added enough when the dough can barely be mixed anymore and your hand feels like it's going to fall off.

5. Spread some more flour on the surface where you'll knead, as well as on your hands. Knead for 12 minutes or until smooth, working in additional flour as needed.

6. Grease a ceramic bowl, toss your bread dough in it, cover with plastic wrap or a slightly damp towel and let it rise for till double, about 1 hour. (Since it'll be awhile before you bake, the oven is a good place to let the dough rise. Pre-heat the over to 150° or whatever the lowest setting is. After it's heated, open the door and wait a few minutes, then place the dough in the oven to rise.)

7. After the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it rise again (about 30-45 minutes).

8. Punch the dough down and knead it for 1 or 2 minutes. Divide the dough in half, then cover the dough and let it rest for 15 minutes.

9. Bust out that rolling pin and start rolling the dough out. Try to eliminate the bubbles you notice -- the more you eliminate the smoother the final product will be. Roll the dough into 15"x12" rectangles (or other dimensions is if you want a longer baguette).

10. Start in a corner and roll-up the dough, working diagonally to the corner across from the one where you started. Shape and taper to your heart's content.

11. Grease a baking sheet and place the two loaves on them. Using a sharp knife, make a few gashes in the top of the loaf, about two inches apart.

12. For that shiny look, beat the egg white until it's foamy and add some water. Brush this over the top of the loaf. If you prefer your crusts, well, crusty, then just brush water over the loaf.

13. Set the loaves down and grab four glasses. Place the glasses so that when a moist cloth is draped over them it isn't touching the bread. Let rise again, about 1 hour. About 1/2 hour into it, preheat the oven to 375°.

14. If you desire an extra shiny or extra crisp crust, brush the loaf with egg white or water while baking.

15. 15-20 minutes is all it takes to -- 20 minutes at 375° should be plenty of time.

16. Let the buttering begin!

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