Friday, April 10, 2009

The Oven Test

These photos are backwards... not sure why, but I do know that no matter how backwards the photos are, this recipe is most certainly NOT backwards...
My husband and I were discussing our Saturday morning breakfast options wherein he put in a request for french toast.. And how could I resist that suggestion... light, buttery toasts, washed with eggs and milk and a hint of cinnamon, topped with butter and a pool of maple syrup... sounds alright to me.  The deal was, if I would make the breakfast, he would have to run to the store to pick up the bread, the star ingredient if you will. 
Well, after careful consideration, I decided that, in order to make the best tasting french toast, I should start with the best tasting bread, which is most certainly always homemade.  So the hunt for the recipe was on...
After searching for a while, through various sites, food magazines and cookbooks, I stumbled upon a recipe that, with a few tweaks and a couple augmentations, became unique to my own tastes and preferences... 
What I found was that the dough was soft and pliable and had the most delicious yeast-dough smell, which filled the house while rising and puffing out to a plump and filled-out state. I added a pinch more yeast than originally recommended as these sorts of doughs can often turn out a little on the dense side, which, although still delicious, tends to preoccupy the palate which is expecting a light, flaky crust with an equally light but chewy center... Having said that, the ingredients came together easy and I had everything I needed at home, between the fridge and the pantry, so the recipe receives full grades for the ingredient list.  
Enough is enough though, on with the important stuff I say.  Here is my version of a very classic french bread that would be a fitting star for any breakfast table, or dinner table for that matter. 

Oh, one last note, I started this dough in an electric mixer and finished it by hand.  There is no reason why this recipe could not be done entirely by hand though, good for the muscles!

And another note, the yeast does not require any proofing in this recipe so it is pretty much a throw-together-and-mix dough, which is nice for those of us with little time to mess around! 

Classic French Bread
  • 5-6 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 3/4 (0.25 oz.) packages of active dry yeast
  • 1 3/4 tsp salt (you can adjust this to your own preferences, I find that a little under 2 teaspoons adds lovely flavor.)
  • 2 cups warm water  (about 110 degrees F.)
  • Handful of course cornmeal
  • 1 egg white (slightly beaten, but don't hurt it too much:)
Now for the hands-on part.

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of the flour with the yeast and the salt.  

Stir in 2 cups of warm water and stir the flour/yeast/salt/water mixture until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and happy.

At this point, if you are mixing by hand, start to add the remaining flour in small amounts until you start to form a dough that is pliable but not sticking to your hands.  

In a mixer, follow the same plan as with hand mixing, but try and mix by hand as soon as possible to avoid over-mixing the dough, which can yield a tough and overly chewy finished product.

Once you have added enough flour to yield a stretchy yet moist and smooth dough, kneed the dough for about 8 - 10 minutes.  At this point, it is time for you to rest, and the bread too.

Grease a large bowl with whatever oil you wish, although a light oil like sunflower or grape-seed oil would be preferable. 

Form the bread dough into a nice ball, drop it gently into the bowl and turn it once so that all the sides of the ball are nicely greased.  

At this point, cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap and a tea towel (so that the dough is tucked in and extra warm.)  Place the bowl somewhere warm until the dough has doubled in size, the time will vary according to your home, the humidity etc, so the best way to know when the bread has risen adequately is to poke it softly. 
The bread will have risen enough when the indent of your finger does not bounce back.  

Now, here is where you release any anger that is inside you. Uncover the dough and punch down the bread, releasing any gases that the yeast have created and then split the dough into two pieces.  

Drop the pieces onto a lightly floured surface and cover, yet again, only this time, for 10 minutes.    

In the meantime, lightly oil a large baking sheet and sprinkle the sheet with a light coating of cornmeal. The cornmeal will give the bread a crunchy, flavorful bottom and will also help prevent the bread from sticking to the pan.  Set the pan aside and pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees F.  

Once the 10 minutes is up, roll each dough hunk into a large rectangle.  Starting from one of the long sides, roll-up the rectangle, moistening the edge with a little dab of water.  Seal the roll and place each loaf on the baking sheet seam-side down.  

Brush the tops of the loaves with the slightly beaten egg white and cover the bread with a damp towel.  Allow the loaves to rise one more time for 35 - 40 minutes, or until they have just about doubled in size.

After 35-40 minutes, remove the towel from the bread.  With a very sharp knife, make 4- 5 diagonal slices (1/4 inches deep) across the top of each loaf.  

Pop the bread into the oven for twenty minutes.  Brush the bread with the egg white once more and return the bread to the oven for an additional 15 - 20 minutes.  Inserting a thermometer into the bottom of the bread can help accurately determine if the bread has been properly baked.  For a crusty, rustic bread like this, the internal temperature should be anywhere between 200 and 208 degrees F.  

Once finished, move the bread onto a cooling rack until there is no more residual heat.  Of course, slicing into the bread hot out of the oven is heavenly as well.

Note:  Depending on the oven, the bread may begin to brown too quickly.  A layer of tin-foil can help avoid burned bread, which would be quite the shame after all the work.


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