I tend to dream of the South of France. Rolling hills decorated with neat rows of grape vines, the scent of lavender in the air, the cerulean blue skies with faint puffs of white cotton clouds and the warm touch of the Mediterranean sun upon my skin. And the food…oh how I dream of the food. The array of pungent, oozy cheeses, the pepper-flecked salamis and rough country style pâtés are all perfect accompaniments to the most outstanding baguettes you can lay your hands on. A crisp yet chewy crust gives way to light innards scattered with pockets of air throughout. I have yet to find such a baguette here in the US. They are often doughy and dense with a crumbly crust, a far cry from their French counterparts. So though I dream of walking to the local bakery and picking up a few fresh baguettes for the day in Plan de la Tour, it never occurred to me to attempt to make them at home. It did occur however to Breadchick Mary of The Sour Dough and Sara of I Like to Cook, the hostesses of this months Daring Bakers challenge (be sure to check out the other entries here). And for that, I owe them many thanks!
Upon seeing this months challenge, Julia Child’s French Bread, I took a sharp inhale of breath and held it for what felt like eternity. Countless doubts flitted about in my mind. Would it be possible to succeed in this challenge? A 17 page recipe?! Three rises? A simulated bakers oven? As I slowly let out the air, an immense sense of hope replaced the doubt as I imagined what joys would await me if this challenge would actually produce a bonafide, French baguette.
Though the recipe itself was not difficult, it was extremely time consuming – about a 10-hour process from start to finish. The dough came together in a breeze – soft, round and springy like a baby’s bottom. The time whiled away between the first and second rise. When it came to shaping, I chose to make batards, a slightly shorter cousin of the baguette. I set them in their linen hammocks and allowed them a final rise. I pre-heated the oven with tile stones to bake the bread on. My first snafu came in the slashing of the baguettes – I used a sharp chefs knife, which did not cut through clean, and I think I made the slashes too long rather than three shorter ones. As I placed the baguette in the oven, I didn’t shove it in far enough for there to be space for the others. I didn’t want to risk messing with it so I decided to bake it on its own and then try to bake the other two together – my second snafu. I brushed the dough with water every few minutes and anxiously waited until the timer went off. I opened the oven door and to my delight, there was a gorgeously tanned batard on the other side! It didn’t have the perfect slashes but it looked good enough to me for a first attempt. My next slashing attempt was worse than the first – jagged slits that deflated the batard! I attribute this to the fact that perhaps it was left out too long, and would not have occurred had I baked all batards at once. My second batard closely resembled an alligator’s snout. The third batard I turned into an epi, and to my utter glee, it was perfection! The hardest part then came in the waiting game, a 2-hour stretch of time that dragged on like a high school exam. By the time I was finally able to break bread, it was 10 in the evening! We sliced open the ‘alligator’ batard and served it with a cheese plate. Though the shape was not ideal, the innards were soft and airy, the crust perfectly crisp and chewy and the flavour – it was enough to transport us back to the South of France. I could not believe that here, in my own home, a batard worthy of Plan de la Tour was born!