I've said it before, but I'll say it again: there's really nothing like homemade bread. Nothing else comes close to the smell and warmth it imparts to the house, nor the sense of completion I get when I pull crusty loaves from my oven and let them cool on the table. I eat bread almost every day - it's a staple of my existence - so having it freshly made and available just makes sense. Although I'm surrounded by places where I can buy good bread (imagine - even the d'Agostino's around the corner sells bread from Tribeca Oven), I will always prefer to make my own. I can fiddle with new recipes, sink my fingers into cool, elastic dough, and commune with the hippy inside me (present since I tie-dyed my underpants and wrote a research paper on Woodstock in the 10th grade). Now that hippy has moved on from experimentation with fabric dyes to just wanting to bake bread, make her own yogurt and cheese, and grow her hair out. Not very counterculture, I know.
The slender baguettes above came from my latest batch of baking in which I followed a recipe that Molly O'Neill published when she still wrote for the New York Times Magazine regularly (every bio I found of her online says that she still is the food columnist for the magazine, but I think those are in need of a bit of an update). The piece was on artisan bakers at a time when artisan baking was just becoming mainstream. Maggie Glezer's fantastic book was published later that same year. Loaves of crusty bread with irregular pockets of air studding the creamy interior flooded bakeries, and people were becoming acquainted with words like poolish, autolyse, and biga.
The Standard Baking Company, now found under Portland's famous Fore Street restaurant, was known in foodie circles to have great, European-style bread. Using one basic poolish (a mixture of flour, water and yeast that is allowed to rise, then added to the dough to give the baked bread a better, fuller flavor), the bakers at Standard developed three recipes to incorporate it. I tried the baguette recipe first, but I plan to make the other two (a rustica and raisin-pecan) as soon as I find a bit more time. I made the poolish one afternoon by stirring together cake yeast (difficult to find, at least in lower Manhattan), flour and water and letting it sit for several hours. This fragrant slop was then to be measured out and added to a fresh bowl with flour, more cake yeast and water.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that I walked into my bathroom to wash my hands and saw a shiny cockroach amble languidly across the floor, sending me shrieking and wailing into the other room while Ben killed it and flushed it down the toilet. I, of course, had to also then vacate the premises and could return only at the point in which I didn't see a largish insect every time I closed my eyes or blinked. I'm such a girl, I know. A cowardly, wimpish girl. But there's something about roaches that just induces utter despair. You know they're there, lurking in the walls, too close for comfort. But you get through most days staying out of their way (and vice versa). When that delicate balance is thrown out of wack by the appearance of a roach in your personal space, it brings to light just how foolish and delusional you are for thinking you could live life avoiding them. Anyway, luckily for me, the poolish could be refrigerated.
The next day, with teeth clenched and eyes firmly ignoring all peripheral movement, I kneaded together some poolish, flour, water, salt and cake yeast into a shaggy dough, then let that sit for 15 minutes. I then tipped the dough out on the counter and kneaded it until it was smooth, about 10 minutes. I covered the dough and let it rise for an hour.
I tipped this gently back out on the counter and folded it in half. It then went back into the bowl to rise again.
An hour after that, the dough held the imprint of my hand when I pressed it gently, so I turned it out and divided it into three pieces. I shaped the pieces into logs and put them on a floured sheet.
O'Neill instructs you to fold the long sides of the loaves into the middle to create the baguette shape. I found that confusing, but managed to shape loaves that looked just fine.
These loaves rose a third time. After an hour or two, I heated the oven, slashed the baguettes (badly) and slid them in with a makeshift steam system of icecubes in a pan at the bottom of the oven (because I was too disorganized to get a spray bottle).
The baguettes baked until they were crusty and golden (O'Neill says this should take 16 minutes; my nutty oven took longer). I let the loaves cool on a rack, then broke one open to eat with dinner.
We ate half of that baguette for dinner. The crust was crisp and the crumb was warm and delicious (if a bit salty). I wonder what the difference to the crust would have been if I'd used a spray bottle or a pizza stone to insulate the oven. I wrapped the rest of that loaf in aluminum foil to reheat, sprinkled with water, for breakfast. In case you didn't know and were throwing out "stale" baguettes, the sprinkling of water and short time in the oven revives any limp baguette to its formerly crusty state. I froze the other two baguettes.
I'm not sure this is the baguette recipe: I'm still holding out for one that will deliver something closer to the Retrodor I loved to eat in Paris (though I realize that professional ovens, and water and flour quality in France has much to do with the flavor and texture). But the satisfaction that comes from biting into your own bread really makes up for almost everything.