Stuff about the staff of life

A few years ago, I was given a bread maker as a present. It’s something of a beast: the top-of-the-line Zojirushi machine. I call it the 3D printer for bread, since it requires nothing more than dumping the measured ingredients into the pan, shutting the lid and pressing a button.

As lovely and easy as this machine is to use, it did not satisfy one baking task on my bucket list: French baguettes. The Zojirushi does include a recipe and will do all the necessary mixing and kneading. It just requires a few extra steps to shape and bake in a regular oven.

So, after some research and a bit of experimenting, I believe I have hit upon the perfect baguette. The recipe calls for:

  • 1 3/4 cups (300ML) water. (Use purified water. Chlorine and yeast are not very friendly.)
  • 3 3/4 cups flour (480g)
  • 1 tsp. salt (5.6g)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice (5 ML)
  • 2 tsp. yeast (6g)

Now, in a bread machine, you would mix the water and lemon juice and pour this into the machine first. Then mix the flour and salt and place that in a little mound in the center. Depress down about an inch in the flour and pour in the yeast. This machine has a setting for kneading and proofing (letting the bread rise). It takes a couple hours.

If you are mixing and kneading by hand, I would recommend using warm water (100 degrees F, or about 38 C). Pour in the yeast, mix it with a little flour and give it a few minutes to activate. You can throw in a pinch of sugar to feed the yeast and guarantee activation.

Fun fact: The Egyptians accidentally discovered how to leaven bread (i.e. make it rise) when they parked their unbaked dough not far from where they brewed their beer. The yeast floated through the air, seeped into the dough and doing a double duty, fermented the brew while giving rise to the modern loaf.

I mentioned I’ve done some research. It seems the trick to baguettes is in the baking. A few things are required. 1. A really hot oven. 470 F (240 C). A pan in the bottom to hold a few ice cubes that will generate some steam (more on this in a bit). And if you’re so inclined, a specialized backing rack. I am using a generic pan I picked up on Amazon for under $20. It is made of steel, coated with teflon and is perforated to provide the heat and steam to seep through.

Once your dough has risen and is ready to go, you want to roll it out into two loaves. The trick is to flatten the two loaves and then tuck the sides underneath to form the loaf shape.

Now, you can either spritz the top with water or you can baste it with a whisked egg yolk (I add a little water to this). Then, with a very sharp knife, score the top diagonally with three cuts.

Fun fact: Humans have been consuming some form of “bread” (i.e. flour and water with or without leavening agents) for about 7,000 years. Sounds like a long time, but, anthropologically speaking, it’s a mere fraction of the 60+ million years that primates have been around.

Now for the steam. Once the oven is hot and the loaves are in the baking pan, you’ll want to get four or five ice cubes ready. Open the oven and place the ice cubes in the tray that you had previously put in the bottom shelf. Then put the bread in on the middle rack and close.

Do not open at any time. Let the bead brake for 20 minutes. Out should pop something looking these loaves. Good luck!

Fun fact: The shape of the baguette became popularized in France after it passed a law that prohibited bakers from opening before 4 a.m. The narrow, elongated loaves bake more quickly and so the shape was actually pragmatic rather than aesthetic or culinary in inspiration.

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