The Best Bread Ever

The Best Bread Ever

Three 14-inch loaves
Fermentation: 1 1/2 to 2 hours at room temperature, 70°F to 72°F
Proofing: 35 to 40 minutes at room temperature

Each step in this recipe is designed to make you feel at ease mixing dough in the food processor. If you've made bread by hand before, then you're accustomed to adding water to the flour as it mixes if the dough feels too firm or flour if the dough feels sticky. When mixing dough in the food processor, you will achieve the same results by holding back a few tablespoons of the water at the beginning of the mixing, adding it if the dough appears to be crumbly or if it is not coming together into a ball in the bowl. Depending on the brand and type of flour you are using, you may not need to add all of the water called for in the recipe. Set out all of your ingredients and have extra flour and a small amount of cool water handy should you need to make adjustments.

The first few times you mix this dough, stop the machine and feel the dough. If it feels very soft and clings to your fingers, add a few tablespoons more flour then resume mixing the dough for the time remaining. Once you have mixed this dough a few times, you'll probably end up throwing the entire amount of water in at the beginning.

Unlike many bread doughs you may be familiar with, this dough does not always double in bulk. In fact, it may seem downright sleepy as it quietly ferments. Once the dough is formed into loaves, it becomes more active. The loaves will puff and swell.

The beauty of this dough is its versatility. Use it to make baguettes or hearty peasant rolls. Make this dough with bread flour as I do or with all-purpose flour for a lighter texture. Once you become adept with this recipe, experiment by adding different blends of flours.

This recipe makes three long baguettes or the dough can be divided and formed into any of the shapes described in the section on forming bread (pages 35-42).

If you are making baguettes in a home convection oven, try baking them in the convection mode without a pizza stone. You may get better results.

Unbleached bread flour: 500 grams or 1 pound or 3 1/3 to 4 cups
Fine sea salt: 10 grams or 2 teaspoons
Instant yeast: 1 teaspoon
Water: 315 grams or 10 ounces or 1 1/4 cups
Cornmeal for the baking sheet

1. Place the flour, salt, and yeast in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Using an instant-read thermometer, adjust the water temperature so that the combined temperatures of the water and the flour give a base temperature of 130°F if using a Cuisinart or KitchenAid or 150°F if using a Braun. (See page 33 for other models.) With the machine running, pour all but 2 tablespoons of the water through the feed tube. Process for 20 seconds, adding the remaining water if the dough seems crumbly and dry and does not come together into a ball during this time. Continue mixing the dough another 25 seconds, for a total of 45 seconds.

2. Stop the machine and take the temperature of the dough with an instant-read thermometer, which should read between 75°F and 80°F. If the temperature is lower than 75°F, process the dough for an additional 5 seconds. If the temperature of the dough is still lower than 75°F, then process the dough for 5 seconds, up to twice more, until it reaches the desired temperature. If the temperature is higher than 80°F, remove the thermometer, scrape the dough from the food processor into an ungreased bowl, and refrigerate for 5 to 10 minutes. Check the temperature of the dough after 5 minutes; the dough should be 80°F or cooler by that time.

3. Remove the dough from the processor and place it in a large ungreased bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to ferment for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at room temperature, about 70°F to 72°F. It will increase in volume somewhat, but don't be concerned by how much.

4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. With a dough scraper or kitchen knife, divide the dough into 3 equal pieces and shape them into rough balls. Cover them with a sheet of plastic wrap and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

5. In preparation for the final proofing, spread a sheet of canvas or a heavy linen cloth on a counter or tabletop and sprinkle it lightly with flour. (If using a baguette pan, spray it with vegetable cooking spray.)

6. Sift a fine coating of flour on the work surface. Place one ball of dough on the surface and gently pat it down to an even thickness of 1 inch. Do not attempt to deflate every air bubble. Using the heels and palms of your hands, flatten the dough into a crude rectangle measuring about 4 x 5 inches and 1 inch thick. Fold the long side farthest from you a little over 2/3 of the way toward you. Using the heel of your hand, gently press the folded edge to seal the dough. Pick up the dough and turn it 180 degrees. Fold over the other long edge of the dough about 2/3 of the way, and seal with the palm of your hand.

7. To make a compact cylinder easy to roll into a baguette shape, use both hands to fold the log in half lengthwise. This time, as you fold, press your thumbs gently inside the fold to create tension on the surface of the log. Using your fingertips, press the edges together to seal the dough into a taut cylinder. This will produce a visible seam running the length of the dough.

8. To roll the dough into a baguette shape, place both hands on the center of the log with your fingers spread apart. Using light uniform pressure, gently roll the dough back and forth into a long snake. Taking care not to stretch the dough, move your hands from the center of the dough to the ends as the loaf begins to lengthen to about 14 inches. If the dough resists rolling, let it rest for 5 minutes before continuing. Repeat steps 6 through 8 with the remaining dough.

9. Using both hands, gently transfer each baguette, seam side up, to the lightly floured cloth. Fold the fabric up to form channels in which each loaf will rise. (Place the baguettes close together so that they rise and don't spread out.) Sprinkle the loaves with flour and cover them loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Let the baguettes proof for 30 to 45 minutes, until the dough increases by half its size. It should feel soft but still spring back slightly when poked with your finger.

10. One hour before baking, put the oven rack on the second shelf from the bottom of the oven and place the baking stone on the rack. Place a small pan for water on the oven floor. Preheat the oven to 475°F.

11. Uncover the loaves. Place them seam side down on a peel or on the back of a baking sheet that has been lightly sprinkled with cornmeal. Or place the loaves in greased and lightly floured baguette pans. Sprinkle each loaf lightly with flour, and slash the tops several times diagonally with a razor blade.

12. Carefully pour about 1 cup of warm water into the pan on the oven floor. Slide the baguettes from the peel or the back of the baking sheet onto the baking stone in the oven. Or, place the baguette pan directly on the baking stone. Reduce the heat to 450°F.

13. Bake the loaves for 2 minutes. Open the oven and quickly pour another cup of water into the pan on the oven floor. Continue baking for 20 to 22 minutes until the crust is golden brown. Tap the bottom of the loaves; a hollow sound means they're done. Or, insert an instant-read thermometer into the bread, and if the internal temperature is 205°F to 210°F, the bread is done.

14. Remove the bread from the oven and immediately place the loaves on a wire rack to cool completely before storing.

Store the bread in a paper bag or loosely covered with a towel at room temperature. The bread will remain fresh for up to two days at room temperature when covered with a towel.

Excerpted from The Best Bread Ever by Charles Van Over Copyright© 1997 by Charles van Over. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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