…pain? Relax, relax — that’s French for bread. 😉
Yesterday, as part of our easy meal of grilling out, I decided to make some French bread.
“But, but, but…you said you were making the meal to be easy! How on earth can baking your own French bread be easier than purchasing some?”
Well, yes, purchasing the bread is marginally easier, but 1) I have some yeast I need to use before it expires (expect to see some more bread trials coming up with some regularity in posts in the immediate future 😉 ); 2) unless you live near a first-class bakery (I don’t), homemade is much tastier than most store-bought — with the added bonus that it makes your kitchen smell yummy; 3) making the bread is more affordable than purchasing it; and 4) honestly, I think this recipe is one of the simplest I’ve ever done.
Most yeast breads are pretty straightforward, with the biggest concerns being temperature (liquids not too hot or too cool and having a pleasantly warm — not too hot, not too cool — spot for the bread to rise) and allowing time (indirect for you) for the bread to rest and rise as needed.
For this French bread recipe, the “time” part is rather more significant than with many other yeast breads — you definitely need to plan ahead a bit to make it. Otherwise, il est facile. 🙂
This recipe is from my Betty Crocker “The Big Red” Cookbook. It calls for simple, basic ingredients: yeast, water, salt, all purpose flour, and bread flour.
You start off by making a “sponge”: you whisk together the yeast and flour, stir in very warm water, cover the bowl tightly with cling wrap, and leave it in a warm spot for an hour or so while you go off and do other things — watch TV, work on taxes, answer client e-mails, pet your dog, brush your cat, play with your kid, do some housecleaning, taking a bubble bath…whatever. When you come back to check on it, you’ll find that it’s bubbled into something like this:
Whenever I see a bread sponge, it’s all I can do to keep from saying “It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!!”
Well, okay, I don’t always refrain myself — I actually do say that sometimes. Out loud. Even if no one else is there to hear it — or, perhaps even worse, when someone else is! 😉
Anyway, to this sponge you add in the salt and more flour, knead it a bit, then set it in a warm spot to rise some more for another hour or hour and 15 minutes — once again, while you go off and do whatever else you want to or need to. When you come back, the bread will have risen — and you’ll know it’s ready when you can poke your fingers into it and the indentations remain:
After that, you shape the bread into loaves and then place it in the ‘fridge to hang out for “at least 4 hours but no longer than 24 hours.” During this period, you can accomplish several other chores, get into a great deal of mischief, do some significant pampering, play one or several games, watch movies, take a nap…even go to bed for the day and pick up with the bread again the next day. 🙂
About an hour before you’re ready to bake it, you remove it from the ‘fridge, spritz it with some water, and let it rise in a warm spot. You’re supposed to tug and pull a bit at the bread when you first shape it to give it a nice, smooth, lovely appearance on top, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at that. My mom shapes beautiful rolls and loaves. Me, not so much. I guess that’s something for me to work on.
BTW, isn’t that a nifty bread pan? You can use a regular uninsulated cookie sheet, but I picked this up at a kitchen outlet store (the Kitchen Collection) and used it for the first time yesterday — it’s AWESOME! It keeps the loaves separated and keeps them from spreading/expanding out of shape.
Anyway, then, just before you bake it, you cut slashes into it with a sharp knife, spritz it with water again, and pop it into the oven, where you give it one final spritz before closing the oven door and baking it..et voila! French bread! 🙂
And it tastes pretty yummy, too!
French Bread (Makes 2 loaves)
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 package regular or rapid rise dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons yeast)
- 1 cup (or a bit more, if needed) very warm water (from the tap) (120 – 130F)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/3 to 1 2/3 cups bread flour
- In a large bowl, mix together all purpose flour and yeast. With a whisk, mix in warm water until batter is smooth. (You could also beat with an electric mixer on low speed.) Cover tightly with cling wrap and place in a warm spot for about an hour. This will turn into a “sponge.”
- Stir in the salt and the bread flour, 1/2 cup or so at a time, until a soft dough forms. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and springy, but still soft. (You may want to wear disposable gloves for this bit to help make wash-up of your hands easier.) Place dough in a large, warmed (run it under hot water from the tap and then dry it), lightly greased (with shortening — I like butter-flavored Crisco) bowl, turning dough to grease all sides. Cover loosely with cling wrap and place it in a warm spot to rise, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Dough should nearly double in size; you’ll know it’s ready if indentations remain when you poke it with your finger(s).
- Grease an uninsulated cookie sheet (or an awesome bread pan, such as I showed above! 😉 ) with shortening (my preference: butter-flavored Crisco). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, keeping it in an oval-shaped round, and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. Divide in half with a sharp knife or dough scraper. Gently shape each half into a long (16″ or so), narrow loaf, gently stretching the top of the loaf as necessary to make it smoother in appearance.
- Place loaves, smooth side up, about 4″ or more apart on baking sheet. Cover loaves loosely with cling wrap and place in ‘fridge for at least 4 hours but no longer than 24 hours. (NOTE: Betty Crocker says you can skip this step and go straight to the one, but that the refrigeration is what helps give the bread its texture and flavor, so I say skip this part at your own peril! 😉 )
- When ready to bake, uncover loaves, spritz with cool water, and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour — you want the refrigerated dough to lose its chill and come nearer to room temperature.
- You will want to place an 8″x8″ or 9″x9″ pan filled to about 1/2″ from the top with hot water in the center of the bottom rack of your oven. Preheat your oven to 475F. (The time the dough spent hanging out in the ‘fridge + the steam created from the pan of water + the spritzing of the loaves with water = the crusty exterior and tasty interior of French bread.)
- When ready to bake, carefully cut 1/4″ deep slashes about 2″ apart onto the tops of the loaves with a sharp knife. Spritz with cool water. Place bread in oven and spritz with cool water again.
- Close oven door and reduce heat to 450F. Bake for 18 – 20 minutes, until loaves are a golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Remove from pan and allow to cool on a wire rack. (I place a clean, smooth dish towel on my rack.)