Baguettes and bread ... the quest for authenticity

I am an unabashed baguette and artisan bread fanatic; baguettes being at the absolute top of my list.  As Mireille Guiliano acknowledges in her book French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure (Vintage Books, 2007), bread is both her best friend and her worst enemy … sign me up.  The baguettes we purchased at the local Petit Casino in Villefranche-sur-Mer were just from the local bakery, not from any famous Parisian boulanger … fresh, crusty, soft on the inside, and so flavorful; no preservatives.  At the end of each school day studying French at the Institut de Française we looked forward to sitting outside on the balcony of our apartment for our après l'école (decompression happy hour) … fromage et charcuterie sur baguette, savored with le vin and a great view over the bay and harbor of Villefranche-ser-Mer.

Upon our return to the US, we had to buy groceries.  First, we went to our “everyday” grocery.  Even though it advertises “in store” baking of fresh bread, the alleged “baguettes” were disheartening; felt like a loaf of regular sandwich bread shaped somewhat like a baguette and in a paper bag but with no real baguette character.  It was soft throughout with no “fresh baked bread” aroma.  No sale here.

Our next stop was to our local “upscale” grocery, that also advertises “in store” baking of fresh bread.  It even has an oven you can see behind the counter, and standing there long enough I watched bread being removed, not any baguettes though.  However, there were traditional baguettes in paper bags in a bin in front of the “baking” counter.  To the acid test, the crust of the bagged baguettes was hard and it had a recently baked aroma, good enough to buy and try.  The ingredients list was as properly expected … flour, salt, water and yeast … no details, of course. 

We cut the baguette as soon as we got home; the holes in the crumb (the inside of the loaf) were different sizes but not markedly so.  Check out the holes in the inside of your next loaf of “industrial” bread.  (A sign of artisan French bread is the crumb has holes of different sizes interspersed throughout the loaf, and the size differential can be quite stunning.)  The taste was somewhat on the doughy side.  Then, of course, I looked at the label to see what preservatives had been added to the bread, you know, those long words you cannot pronounce nor know the meaning of … none listed.

Sometime later I was back in the upscale grocery and had the opportunity to talk to the head of the bakery for that store.  I asked him directly whether the baguettes were fully baked in the store in the oven on display.  Unsurprisingly, the answer was “no.”  Fully baked baguettes were delivered by an outside bakery, they were not even partially baked outside and “finished” in the store.  I told him that in my multiple visits, I had only seen what the store describes as “rustic artisan” loaves taken out of the oven, never any baguettes.  He admitted that the store emphasized the rustic artisan boules (a round loaf) because they appeared more dramatic to the shopper than a simple baguette.  (If baguettes are so simple, why is it so hard to find good ones?)  I give him credit for honesty (and I do understand the marketing).

How was I to “find” a baguette at least somewhat comparable to the ones in Villefranche?  Mireille Guiliano has a recipe for baguettes in French Women Don’t Get Fat.  How hard could it be for me to bake my own baguettes?  We followed the recipe … unfortunately, not even close to the store-bought one, much less the ones in Villefranche, and they could have been used for boat anchors in the lake.

There is a kitchenware shop a few blocks from us that offers cooking classes, Whisk (www.whiskcooks.com).  A search of Whisk’s class offerings led us to “Mastering French Breads,” taught by Pastry Chef Thanh Tang.  A few clicks and a credit card and we were signed up.  The class description said, “In this hands-on class you will make and enjoy

Baguettes au Levain (Baguettes with a Natural Sourdough Starter)

Light, Rich Brioche a Tete

Couronne Bordelaise (Crown Bread)”

Obviously, a lot had been prepared for us beforehand because the class was only three hours and we baked all of the listed breads. They all came out looking like the picture in the class schedule.

Chef Tang introduced us to the 12-step bread baking process.  He explained that developing the baguette crust required steam in the oven, and that professional bread baking ovens had steam injection systems.  Chef Tang went on to describe a couple of ways to introduce steam into an ordinary home oven; for example, putting a cast iron pan filled with lava rocks in the bottom of the oven, preheating it along with the oven, pouring boiling water into the pan at the time the dough is put into the oven, and closing the oven door immediately to trap the steam.

In the class we were introduced to le moule à baguettes, a ceramic-baker manufactured by Emile Henry in France.  This baker has a bottom tray with three molded groves for thirteen-inch baguettes and a top with three holes in it that fits over the tray.  Chef Tang explained that le moule would provide the desired steam from the moisture in the bread dough.  The moule was preheated in the oven to 500° F (260° C) before being, carefully, loaded with our shaped baguettes.  We removed the top after fifteen minutes and turned the oven down to 425° F (218° C) to allow browning.  Our baguettes looked and tasted pretty good; not quite “French-good” but much better than the store-bought ones and no preservatives.  Confident that un moule would lead us to the baguettes of our desires, a credit card swipe and it was on the way home with us.

Chef Tang had given us recipes for all of the breads we baked in class, and now fully equipped we were ready to recreate the baguettes we remembered … well, not exactly.  We tried the baguette recipe and le moule at home … we did not have Chef Tang’s preprep … the result, though tasty, was a recognition that we had a lot more to learn.

“Mastering French Breads” was the first class we took at Whisk, and Chef Tang gave us a great foundation for learning in just three hours.  We have continued to take classes there and have been introduced to a number of wonderful chefs and learned how to prepare some amazing meals … “Crab, Crab and more Crab,” with Chef James Sherrill, “The Spanish Kitchen – Paella,” with Chef Yary Oslund, “The Italian Kitchen – Risotto,” with Chef Barbara Sowatsky, “Grilling and Rosé,” with Chef Bonnie McPike.

Not giving up on my baguette quest, I started researching baking schools and bread baking books; I found a few schools and tons of books.  The more time I spent, the more I began to grasp the depth of my lack of knowledge.  Getting back to France-quality baguettes without a trip there was looking more difficult.

One of the first “bread books” that caught my eye was Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making by Daniel Leader (Avery, October 1, 2019), which led me to the Bread Alone Bakery Website (www.breadalone.com).  My first impression was Bread Alone was baking the kind of bread I want to bake and I looked forward to reading Leader’s book.  Hunter Mountain, Belleayre, Windham, Plattekill and Catamount are ski areas near Bread Alone; not in my neighborhood though.

One bread book led to another bread book to yet another bread book and yet another and …; now I have a bread-baking library.  Several themes are consistent through all of the bread books.  Every bread book pays special homage to Boulangerie Poilâne in Paris.  Boulangerie Poilâne was started by Pierre Léon Poilâne in 1932, creating bread using stone-ground flour, natural fermentation and a wood-fired oven.  Son Lionel (June 10, 1945 – October 31, 2002) took over the boulangerie in 1970 continuing his father’s traditional methods.  Poilâne is known worldwide for a round, two-kilogram sourdough country bread referred to as a miche or pain Poilâne.  Apollonia Poilâne, eldest daughter of Lionel Poilâne and Irena Poilâne, and her sister artist Athena Poilâne, now own Boulangerie Poilâne and are committed to continuing the Boulangerie Poilâne traditions.  Boulangerie Poilâne is located at 8 rue de Cherche-Midi in Paris, and is considered Paris' most famous bakery.  First stop on our next trip to Paris, unfortunately not anytime soon.

“Sancho, back to my quest.”  All of my reading, though enjoyable and educational, was not producing fresh-baked aroma or warm loaves.  Coronavirus put an insurmountable crimp in any plans to physically go to a baking school.  As in so many dimensions of covid life, Zoom provided the answer.  King Arthur Baking offered two intensive on-line classes that appeared to put me on the path of my bread desires (www.kingarthurbaking.com/learn).  The first class was “Bread: Principles & Practice,” which is described as, “hands-on work in yeast breads, from basic bread through whole grains, sweetened breads, and French bâtards.”  The follow-on class, however, “Artisan Baking at Home,” appeared to lead directly to personal nirvana, “Is your life’s ambition to create the perfect French baguette?  Would you love to make your own flaky croissants from start to finish?  If so, this class was created with you in mind.”  A credit card and I was committed to four days of four hours per day on Zoom for each class; time, effort and money extremely well spent.  

Now we weekly have fresh-baked bread as good as we had in Villefrance … a French boule or a French bâtard …

or baguettes.

An unexpected delight are our croissants, butter-rich and flaky, very much akin to the fresh croissants we enjoyed daily in France.  Most surprising is how easy they are to make.  Mix the dough and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.  The next day roll out the dough, pound thin a stick of high-fat European-style butter, fold the dough over the butter.  Roll out the dough and butter stack three times, each time folding in thirds and letting rest in the refrigerator for an hour in between.  The result is 55 alternating layers of dough and butter; let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.  The last day once again roll out the dough and butter one last time, cut, roll into the traditional croissant shapes, and bake.  A few steps over three days that do not in themselves take much time.  The result, nothing at all like the croissants in the grocery store.  Our croissants do not last long from the continuing requests from friends.

Learning to bake took some effort, but the rewards … fresh-baked aroma, flavor and nutrition … no preservatives … definitely worth the time and effort.  

We have been using organic unbleached flour.  Next comes grinding our whole grain flour from organic wheat berries, but that’s a future story … stay tuned.