I went to university in Paris, which, amongst other things – you know, strolls along the Seine, visiting museums (though never the one I lived opposite for a year), getting double-decker trains – involved a lot of trips to boulangeries and patisseries. Before I learnt to cook properly, and, afterwards, when time was short or I felt lazy, a lot of my meals involved a baguette, and no picnic in a park or by the river or canal was complete without one.
Since moving back home four and a half years ago, I’ve missed them, but it’s never occurred to me to try making them. Like puff pastry, I assumed it was one of those things that only people who really know what they’re doing make themselves. But I got a new cookbook for Christmas (the ban is very much over), Provence to Pondicherry: Recipes From France & Faraway, and there was a recipe for baguettes. It stuck in my head, and I kept thinking about it, so I ordered a baguette rack: Livvy (who knows what she’s talking about) assured me that it would do all the hard work for me. While I waited for it to arrive, I figured I should remind myself how to make bread, to boost my confidence, so I made it using a recipe I’ve followed a few times. It was bad. The yeast was out of date, and apparently too far out of date to be any good at all. It didn’t rise. It looked like plaster. It was hilarious. So much for boosting my confidence.
So I turned to baguettes, with new, not-expired yeast and a lot of hope. The recipe in my book has rice flour in it, which 1. I don’t have and would never use again, and 2. didn’t think would be in a standard French baguette, so I set off in search of a simpler recipe. I eventually found one by Paul Hollywood, but changed it, to suit the quantities I had available to me, and also so that I wouldn’t lose the enjoyment I get from kneading the dough. I found it so satisfying, and they turned out beautifully. I am extremely pleased with myself.
Here’s my version:
- 350g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- 7g salt
- 7g instant yeast (one sachet)
- 260ml water (room temperature – the original recipe says ‘cool’, but I made these again today and the water had been sitting on the side for a while, and they’ve come out better. This could be a coincidence, but I trust it.)
- olive oil for kneading – I don’t suppose it has to be olive oil, and I never use olive oil for anything involving heat any more, but I did as I was told and used it for this, and it does smell good
Put the flour, salt and yeast into your mixing bowl and mix it all together a bit. Don’t put the salt directly on top of the yeast – you risk killing your yeast before you even get started. Make a well and pour the water in, and mix with your hands until the dough comes together. You might need a little more water so it all comes together properly.
Flour your work surface and knead the dough for several minutes. Lightly oil the mixing bowl you already used, and pop the dough back in. Cover it with clingfilm and leave it to prove for a good hour – it should double in size and look all soft and smooth and lovely. If you have a baguette rack, oil it. If you don’t, line a couple of baking trays with baking paper. Today, I made two in the rack and two on a baking tray. Coat your work surface with oil, then gently set the dough on it – you don’t want to knock out the air. Use a knife – I just used an ordinary table knife – to divide it into 3 or 4 pieces, then gently roll them into sausage shapes, as long as you can get them to go (but not longer than your trays or rack!). Put each tray inside a plastic bag – my baguette rack fits inside a freezer bag, but my baking tray had to go inside a big carrier bag from the cupboard, which I folded and pegged closed. Leave them to prove again for about another hour – they’ll double in size and spring back when you poke them. Preheat the oven to 220°C (not fan).
Fill a roasting tray with boiling water and pop it in the bottom of the oven – this creates steam which helps the outside go crispy and the inside stay soft. Dust the baguettes with flour then slash them down the middle with a sharp knife and pop them in the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until they’re golden brown and look beautiful.
Cool on a wire rack, and try to restrain yourself from eating them until they’ve cooled down enough to touch without hurting yourself, then smear a load of butter on them and congratulate yourself.