But. Having only recently returned from Paris, where I ate baguette literally everyday; I still have such fresh memories of how it should be that I was, from the beginning, already a little psychologically prepared that my home made baguette just probably won’t be the same. I wasn’t just an eater of baguette, I purposefully sought baguette out from different boulangeries, never stepping into the same one twice (which was easy enough to do). I cradled, listened to, and savoured the taste of every single baguette. I felt that, at the end of my 3 week stay in Europe - especially after concurrently experiencing a number of very different Italian breads when in Italy, and a brief encounter with Belgian baguette when I somehow got lost between countries - that I can say, I developed some very personal memories of French baguette.
What can I describe of my experience of French baguette? It produces this tantalising crackle when you slice through it, there’s that soft fluffy bread belly that is sort of like a super elastic cotton candy. I was told that kids love to just eat that fluff and forget the crust. Baguette has a full bread flavour – that’s not very descriptive, but suffice to say, it gives one a feeling of well-being. You feel like going for a walk through the Tuileries, even when it’s cold and grey.
There’s always a baguette in my backpack with some cheese – truffle brie, Roquefort papillon, whatever. My backpack smelt so much like a stinky old shoe - even though it was midwinter - that I felt vaguely paranoid whenever I opened my backpack on the metro. Sometimes, the crust wore my gums out – too much, too tough - but I crave the bread again the next day. It’s true that I had so much baguette, that I sometimes fantasised about rice or noodles.
However, I fell deeply in love with French cheese, all because of baguette.
My white pain, with a tinge of brown
The comparison between my pain francais and my memories of the actual pain francais frankly fails – not surprisingly - but there were some saving graces. I finished all of the bread on my own in two days, in a number of combinations with other foodstuffs. It was still a pretty damn good pain.
But since this is a comparative study, some comparison needs to be made.
My crust was rather more hard than crackly, and it didn’t produce the tantalising music of baguette when I sliced it through. The “brush with cold water when fresh out of the oven” trick really lent a golden sheen – nice. And actually, in spite of the disappointing texture - the flavour of my pain francais was just downright delicious. I think it was the salt. I was initially shocked at the amount of salt I had to add – in this day and age? - but that is something I’m going to be doing for all future breads I make from now on.
The texture of the bread belly was most inauthentic. As you can see, it simply wasn’t elastic enough. It came off like a humongous crumb, even though there were some very pretty irregular holes from the perspective of the cross section. I’m sure it was the flour – I used a normal plain flour because I simply could not locate any flour anywhere that printed their gluten content anywhere on the package that I can inspect. I went all over town, squinted at flour packages, but there was no special gourmet or AP flour to be found. Furthermore, I used up every last bit of flour I had with only a couple of pinches left for flouring the kneading surface that, half way through, I bit my lip and floured the surface with wholemeal flour. So my pain francais had that quirk of being mostly white, with a smattering of brown.
I'm an artisan enveloping a bubbly clod
I believe that many home bakers of bread agree that the breadmaking process always brings with it a little bit of self-discovery. Maybe it’s the time you have to spend indoors with yourself – pretty much the whole day. Or the attention you suddenly have to devote to taking care of something that seems to have a life of its own – a breathing, sweating clod. Or something to do with the softness of the dough – like this dough - that somehow has a soft yielding quality that’s similar to flesh. During the second kneading, I had a vague impression of it somehow feeling like a rather moist baby. It encourages you to treat it gently.This was also the longest recipe I’ve ever read - man, was this a long read. But it was worth it. I can see the results of the enveloping – something that at first I cursed silently at (“why can’t I just shape it anyway I want”). Thus, I tamed my impatient nature momentarily, my tendency for action – which was very satisfying. It was especially exciting watching the bubbles develop, whenever I peeked in at the fermenting dough every so often. Then it was fun puncturing the gas bubbles during the kneading, the way I would bubble wrap as a child. I imagined myself, while kneading the dough, as an artisanal French baker who would wake up at 4 am in the morning, in order to bake fresh bread for my regular customers; but one who is also so on to the times, that she would dedicate her afternoons to making Youtube videos of her art – kneading, enveloping and such - in order to share the baguette tradition with the rest of the online world.
It's a coup!
Then I used my Henckels slicing knife to execute la coupe. German knives on French bread – pourquoi pas, c'est wunderbar! I’m very proud of my knives, so I took lots of pictures of various slits. At first, I thought that the paring knife might be best, but that pulled at the dough, and was no good. The slicing knife, however, was perfect.
I admit that the dough baby fantasy went on for a bit, that by the time slashing time came, I couldn’t really do a good samurai on them, but only very shallow, careful slits. I really loved the slashing most. If bakers actually worked in some sort of a chain process, I would most like to be La Slasher. I was a little disappointed I could only do three coupes per bread.