29 February 2008

Julia Child's French Bread *OR* The Hours

So, I've joined this baking blog called Daring Bakers. It's super cool. Every month they send out a challenge. One or two of the members choose a baking recipe that they would generally not consider because it is too lengthy, or too complicated or just too much something. They send out the recipe to everyone and we all follow it exactly. No substitutions, no experimenting. Then everyone blogs about it and publishes their posts on the same pre-ordained day. I thought it sounded like a ton of fun, especially when I learned that during December the challenge was a yule log.

So I signed up in the middle of January. I waited for a few weeks and low and behold, the first of February comes around and what was that in my inbox? Why it was an email from the Daring Bakers! The recipe was up on the blog and we could all begin. What had they chosen to challenge us with this month? Why, looky here! Julia Child's French Bread recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And holy cow! How long was this going to be? I wasn't sure but as I scrolled down, it just kept going! So I go back to the top, highlight the entire thing and print it out. Eight pages of 10pt font later, I had the entire recipe spread before me. Eight pages! This isn't a recipe, it's a novel. It should be titled, "The Complete Guide to French Bread for the Avid Reader by Julia Child and her writing team."

Knowing that I was leaving for Africa at the end of the month and having a crazy load of stuff to get done before I went, I contemplated skipping this challenge. (As a Daring Baker you can skip four challenges in a calendar year.) But what precedent would that set? Balking when it looks a little tough? Am I a DARING baker or what?! I threw on a little "Eye of the Tiger" and got myself pumped. Looking at my calendar, I only had two days empty enough to attempt this lengthy recipe. The first possibility was President's Day. Okay, better get it over with as soon as possible.

Fast forward to Monday, February 18th >>

As with all leisurely days, we got up late, ate breakfast late and after cleaning up and checking my email and daily blogs, it was almost 1pm before I started the dough. Nothing to report there. I let the ol' Kitchenaid do the hard work and since I make pizza dough almost weekly, I'm used to the kneading process. Julia's instructions were a bit different than any other bread dough I've made, but they weren't difficult to follow. Once I got the dough on it's first rise, Dug, the kids and I decided to go out to a neighborhood brew pub for lunch. Lunch was as good as it could be considering I had developed a migraine by this time. I had already taken an undisclosed amount of Advil followed by more Tylenol a little bit later, and still my head hurt enough to take away my appetite. I love food and for me to not greatly enjoy my Monroe St. Burrito was a major sign that my headache was something to be reckoned with.

Upon returning home, I took some more Advil and laid down, sleep being the only weapon left in my migraine-battling arsenal. After a two-hour nap, my head had finally submitted to the large amounts of painkillers swimming in my veins. Dug asked what he should do with the bread dough, assuming that it had killed itself waiting for me. I figured I'd go assess the damage.

Prior to rising, Julia suggests filling your vessel with 10 1/2 cups of water so you can know when the dough is finished. (It needs to be 3 1/2 times it's original size.) Amazingly enough, after over five hours of rising, the dough was just a little bit higher than it needed to be. The recipe said that at 70 degrees the dough would take about 3-5 hours to rise. Did Julia know her stuff or what?

So, I figured I would keep going and hope for the best. My only problem after the extended-rise/headache fiasco was flipping the risen dough onto my peel. (A peel is that flat piece of wood with a handle that pizza places use to slide the pies in and out of the oven.) After the dough is risen its last time, you take the poofy, oh-so-delicate loaf and flip it from the floured towel onto the cornmeal-strewn peel. The key is to use a tortoise strategy, whereas I'm more of a hare person. I fear that I deflated it a bit, but oh well.

After baking and filling the entire house with that loved-the-world-over scent of fresh-baked bread, the loaf had to cool completely. Something close to two hours. Are you freaking kidding me?! Nope, Julia wasn't. In order for the inside to "compose" itself (whatever that means) it really needs to cool completely. That's the way of French Bread apparently and since Julia hadn't steered me wrong yet, I decided to keep heeding her advice.

By the time the cooling process had finished, it was 1 am in the morning! Yep, you read that correctly. One o'clock ante meridiam! This recipe had taken me over 12 hours from start to finish! And what did I have to show for it? One 12-inch boule, or round loaf, of bread. That's an hour an inch, folks.

But oh! that bread. We decided to wait and have it for breakfast the next morning. (We'd only have to wait a few more hours anyway.) French bread with homemade strawberry jam and butter, washed down with hot tea. It was delicious.

By definition, French bread can be made with only three ingredients: flour, water and yeast. Who knew those three ingredients, under the correct conditions, could create such a blessed creation? Of course the crust was the true pleaser. Julia makes two suggestions when creating this bread at home. First, use tiles or a baking stone for the baking surface. And secondly, you must have steam present at the very beginning. The suggestion that I used, as far as the steam was concerned, was to throw some ice cubes directly on the floor of the 400 degree oven as soon as I slid the loaf on my baking stone. You might want to try another method. I ended up with puddles of brown I'm-not-sure-it-could-still-be-called water on the floor in front of my oven. If you follow her suggestions, though, you end up with a delicious loaf surrounded by the most exquisite crust. It is relatively thin, but crunchy and crispy and the perfect shade of golden brown. The crunch of the crust and the soft, chewiness of the inside was heavenly. (I'm pretty sure as I took a bite, sunbeams illuminated the slice and a faint Hallelujah chorus sounded.)

So was it a success, even with the migraine-intermission? Yes, yes it was. Would I do it again? Hmmmm...I don't know. That is an awful long time for one loaf of bread. Sure, most of it was waiting around, but it doesn't detract that hours and hours were spent for one loaf, no matter how divine. I might make another loaf in the distant future. Maybe making French bread is like giving birth. Wait long enough and you forget what a pain in the butt it is? We'll see.

All I know is this: With this post, I am now, truly, a Daring Baker!

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