Is there anything better than freshly baked bread? I can answer that for you right now and say that there isn't. I first taught myself to make bread four years ago, after I found a baguette pan in the house! Knowing how to make bread is actually really interesting and even though it can seem daunting at first, is really not that hard to get the hang of. After a while of making regular baguettes, I really wanted to try something new.
The Baguette is a very popular type of bread. It is iconic for it's long thin shape, crunchy exterior, and fluffy interior. Fun fact: "Baguette" translates to "stick" or "wand" (If you read Harry Potter in french, a magic wand is referred to as a "baguette magique"). Wow!
While in France, I continued to find new shapes of baguettes, and they all looked so interesting. One of my favorites was the pain d'epi. Pain d'epi is a shape that resembles stalks of wheat, as seen above in the photo. I actually like this version much better for a couple of reasons!
1. Too many of my friends are not able to break bread without completely squishing it. Pain d'epi naturally breaks off into pieces without any possibility of squishing and ruining that nice crunchy exterior. This makes it perfect for a picnic (no knife necessary!).
2. Pain d'epi honestly looks like a piece of art, I love the shape, and introducing people to this bread. It's a great way to kick it up a notch when making baguettes and never fails to impress!
Step 1: Ingredients
Here's what you're going to need!
- Dry Active Yeast - 2 envelopes or 1.5 tablespoons
- Honey - 2 tablespoons
- Warm Water - 1/2 Cup for yeast mixure, 1 cup for dough (optional 8oz for a nice cup of tea while you wait for your dough to rise)
- Flour - 3.5 to 4 cups for the dough, plus a little extra for your countertop's enjoyment
- Salt - 2 teaspoons
- Spray oil - this is for greasing the bowl, so you can also use a canola oil and spread it around
- Cornmeal (optional)
- Ice Cubes - 3 to 4
- Baguette Pan - They look like this but you don't need one to make baguettes (would highly recommend though! I use mine all the time!)
- Baking Pan - must be metal, more on this later
Step 2: Let's Get Bready to Crumble!
You've been waiting for this moment your whole life...time to make some fresh bread! Honestly this never gets old to me, ask anyone I get giddy whenever I start the bread process. Put on your favorite socks, and let's get going!
Heat up some water such that 110ºF-115ºF (or 316ºK, because science). If you don't have a thermometer, no worries! (I don't either) A good test for this is that if you can put your finger in the water and it is hot, but doesn't burn you, then you're good to go! This is actually really interesting because yeast is a living, breathing, organism.
The form of yeast that we use (active dry) is engineered to stay inactive until it comes in contact with warm water. (you are also a living breathing organism, so if the water burns you, it'll burn the yeast!) Yeast feeds off of sugar, and then releases carbon dioxide which causes the bread to rise, so this initial step is getting our little yeast friends to puff up and help our bread rise! If you treat your yeast nicely in this first step, then they will reward you with delicious bread!
So add 1/2 cup of warm water to a bowl (or in my case, a measuring cup), and your honey. Mix it up so that your honey is nice and dissolved, and the water is not too hot (but still very warm!). Add your yeast, and stir it in gently (living organisms, remember?). Set this mixture aside for 5 minutes or so, until it's nice and foamy.
If your mixture is not foamy or doesn't change in the 5 minutes, your yeast is not active. Here's what might be wrong:
- Was your water too hot/cold? If it's too hot, your yeast has been killed. (just start over and remake this mixture with new yeast). If it was too cold, it may not have been warm enough to activate the yeast. Try warming up your mixture go ahead and try it in the microwave for SHORT periods of time. It's not ideal, but don't add any more water to this mixture because the ratio will be off.
- Your yeast may have been expired, check the date.
- Your yeast may have been improperly stored. You want to be sure to keep open yeast refrigerated, or you can even keep the packets in the freezer! The most important thing is to keep it cold so that the yeast will stay dormant until you activate it (through the above process)
Step 3: Start Your Kneading
Try and relocate yourself to a warm area. If it is particularly cold throughout your house, pre-heat the oven and work near it. This will ensure that your yeast friends stay warm so that they can work and rise.
Take a medium/large bowl and mix 3.5 cups of flour (you may need a little extra so keep the bag out while you work) with 2 teaspoons of salt. Add your yeast mixture and 1/2 cup warm (NOT HOT) water, and begin to incorporate the flour. I do this by adding all of my liquids into the center of the flour so that it forms a little "flour bowl" around the liquids. Using a fork stir only the liquids, occasionally sweeping the side of the "flour bowl", which will add a bit of flour at a time. This process takes a while, but just be patient. Taking this step slowly will pay off in the long run! Once you seem to be running out of liquid, add another 1/2 cup or so of warm (NOT HOT) water, and continue mixing. Once your dough is difficult to mix, (it should seem dry, and not all of the flour will be absorbed yet. You will think that you don't have enough water, but don't add any more quite yet!) flip your bowl over and dump your dough onto a clean work surface.
Start to knead your bread! If you've never done this before, here's what you knead (heh) to know!
- Using the heel of your (clean) hands, press into the center of your dough with the weight of your body. It will flatten out.
- Take the edge furthest from you and fold it back onto the dough.
- Rotate your dough 90º and press into the dough firmly again.
- Continue this folding process, not only rotating, but flipping as well.
Continue kneading until your dough absorbs the excess flour, and becomes smooth and elastic. This should take about 5 minutes. To see if your dough is truly ready, you can do the finger test, and press into the dough with one of your fingers. When it's ready, the dough will respond by bouncing back. (see: elastic)
If after that amount of time there is still a lot of flour and your dough is dry, lightly wet your fingertips (with warm water) and continue kneading. Never add very much water at a time during this process, because the heat of your hands will keep the dough absorbing more and more. Continue kneading until your dough passes the finger test with flying colors!
If your dough becomes too wet, and starts to stick to your hands or the work surface (and there is no flour left), sprinkle some flour on top and continue kneading. Keep this process up until it matches the above criteria.
Step 4: Rise and Shine!
Take the bowl that you initially mixed your dough in, (rinse out any extra flour that got stuck in it), and spray it with oil. Place your nice ball of smooth elastic dough into the bowl with lots of love, and lightly coat the dough with oil as well to keep it from drying out. Place plastic wrap, or a towel (or both!) on top of the bowl and put it in a warm environment to rise. I like to put my bowl in the microwave or the oven (be sure they are not turned on!).
Wait for 25-30 minutes, until your dough has doubled in size.
Now punch down your dough. This sounds like an aggressive step, but should actually be a relatively gentle process! Punching down dough helps to get rid of some of the big bubbles that may have formed through the first rise. It helps to evenly distribute all of the ingredients in your dough so that it can rise evenly. Here's how to punch down dough:
- Form a fist with your hand, and firmly press into the middle of the dough (still in the bowl)
- pull the edges of the dough into the center
- remove the dough from the bowl, and place it onto a lightly floured surface, coating it lightly with flour.
- do a couple additional kneads to further release any major air bubbles.
After all of this work, cut your dough in half with a sharp knife, and let your dough rest for a little bit. Any time you let your dough rest, be sure to cover it. You don't want all of your (and your yeast's) hard work to go to waste at this point by letting your dough dry out! When you let your dough rest, this helps to relax the forming gluten, and can make it easier to shape your baguettes.
Step 5: Shaping Your Baguettes
Now that your bread has gotten some time to relax, you get to start shaping your bread. Take one of your piles of dough and place it on your lightly floured work surface (this is to keep the dough from sticking, not to add any extra flour). Make sure that the other ball of dough is covered up.
Start shaping your baguette by taking the heels of both of your hands, and slowly rocking them back and forth over the center of the ball. Move them outwards to both ends of the dough so that it starts to stretch out length-wise. Continue this motion until your dough is about 12 inches long. It should resemble a baguette at this point! Congratulations! If you want to stop here, you don't have to form them into the pain d'epi, but I would highly recommend trying it.
Now, take some (CLEAN and sharp!) scissors. Measure about 3" from one end of the baguette and cut into the dough at a 45º angle making sure to leave about 1/2" of dough still connected at the bottom. DON'T CUT ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Take this small segment and gently rotate it to one side of the loaf, so that the point is lying off and away from the rest of the bread. repeat this motion about 2" away from the first cut, alternating which way you rotate the bread, until you reach the end of the loaf! I like to shape and rotate the last piece of bread such that it is a bit pointed like the rest of the segments!
Gently transfer this loaf to one side of your baguette pan (or regular sheet pan), and repeat the entire process on your other half of dough!
If you chose to not use the pain d'epi shape, score the tops of your loaves about 1/2" deep, using a quick motion. It can also help to wet your knife to prevent sticking.
Cover your baguette (or sheet) pan with a dishcloth, and place it in a warm environment to rise. While they are rising, preheat your oven to 450ºF (230ºC, or 505ºK, because why not), and place a oven save pan (DO NOT USE GLASS) on the bottom rack to pre-heat with the oven.
Step 6: Bake Your Bread
Okay, so you've waited 25 minutes, your bread has doubled in size, and your oven is heated. You're so close to fresh bread!! Grab a friend to help you out, because this part can happen quickly.
Uncover your bread, and quickly slide the baguette pan (or sheet) into the oven. While this is happening, have your friend place 3-4 ice cubes into the pan on the bottom rack. Close the door as quickly as possible (making sure that all hands and arms are out of the oven), and wait! Be careful when you put the ice cubes into your oven: it will create a burst of steam and could be startling if you weren't prepared.
This is also why it is very important not to use glass, the temperature can (and will) cause it to shatter, which is not what you want to deal with when you are expecting bread. Also be cautious if your oven has a glass window on it, such that none of the ice drops onto it in the process.
Now wait for 15 minutes until your baguettes are golden brown! Don't open the oven during this process because 1) heat will be lost, and 2) steam will get out! Patience is a virtue.
Step 7: Bread Magic!
Remove your AMAZING looking baguettes, and try and hold back your friends from digging in right away. These are still very hot, and it's probably not worth it burning your mouth. Probably.
When your friends have overtaken you and you cannot possibly hold them off any longer (about 10 minutes), dig in! I like to enjoy bread with olive oil, a cheese (you really can't go wrong, but a nice spreadable cheese like brie is awesome here. Don't skimp out on the cheese), and butter. My roommate's parents packed us a nice olive oil spice packet ( that we like to mix with our olive oil to best enjoy your delicious and magical fresh bread with. It's actually magical, and now you can impress all of your friends with this recipe! If you wish, add other things to your bread (Garlic, rosemary, olives) during the punching down/shaping process and really wow your hungry audience! Or you can keep it old school.
Thanks for reading, and comment if you have any questions, ideas, or just want to talk about bread!