A Labor of Love

I’ve been so occupied with plans for March that I almost didn’t realize that February was nearly gone. This past Sunday, I was blithely sitting down to breakfast, when all of a sudden it struck me: March 1st is Saturday, and I hadn’t completed my February Daring Bakers challenge yet. This was no small quandary, because Breadchick Mary of The Sour Dough and Sara of I Like to Cook had set before us a very time-intensive (but exciting!) recipe: Julia Child’s own French bread. Although, as a slow-rising yeasted bread, it would not require a great deal of active attention, this was clearly not a recipe I could pull off during the work week. I did some quick calculations to determine if it was already too late, decided I had just enough time to finish at a reasonable hour, and dashed into the kitchen.

Le Fraisage et Petrissage

French bread dough - first rise

As always with my Daring Bakers projects, I tried very hard to stick exactly to the recipe. In this case, I used the stand mixer variant, because I knew immediately that my 9-months pregnant body would not thank me for the effort of handkneading. (I’d like to try handkneading with Julia’s method sometime, however, because it was different from my usual two-fisted method, and I was curious to see how it works.) I did have to add an extra half-cup or more of flour to get a dough that wasn’t unmanageably sticky. Also, I was particularly proud of myself for following the step that called for removing the dough from the bowl after initial mixing, washing the bowl and dough hook, and continuing on from there—I wasn’t sure of its purpose, and every minute that ticks by seems crucial when you are afraid of running out of time, but I did it anyway.

Pointage Premier Temps

French bread dough - end of first rise

I let the dough rise in my most vertically-oriented bowl, carefully determining via water volume that the dough should rise to within an inch or two of its rim. My house is always just cool enough that yeasted doughs need a little extra boost of heat to rise in a timely fashion, so I employed my usual method of warming and then turning off my oven to use as a proofing box. Three hours later, I was good to go.

Rupture et Pointage Deuxieme

French bread dough - end of first rise

I’ve never deflated bread dough by dislodging it from the bowl with a rubber spatula before. It turned into a wrinkly, rubbery mass that kind of cracked me up for some reason, so I had to take a picture. Two hours later, my dough had risen back up to virtually the same level as the finished first rise, and was turned into a wrinkly skin flap yet again.

La Tourne; La Mise en Forme des Patons et L’appret

French bread dough - shaped batards

I decided to make three loaves from my batch of dough. I’ve never shaped batards before, just boules, so I knew that had to be part of my personal challenge. Of course, they also had to be short enough to fit on my pizza-shaped baking stone, so they ended up being rather stumpy batards. My husband has used floured canvas for shaping bread in the past, so I had two canvases all ready to go, which saved me a bit of time. He used scraps of raw linen leftover from stretching canvases for paintings; the fabric has quite a bit of body, so I didn’t find it necessary to brace the folds. I had just enough time for shaping before we headed out for a childbirth prep class, so the shaped loaves—two batards and a small boule—wound up getting nearly three hours for their final rise.

Le Demoulage et La Coupe

French bread dough - shaped boule before baking

As soon as I got home, I started the oven preheating, and decided how to go about getting the loaves onto my baking stone. What ultimately worked best for me was unmolding the dough onto sheets of parchment paper lightly sprinkled with semolina flour and transferring them to the stone via our baker’s paddle. They unmoulded without a hitch, though I didn’t deposit my boule very centrally on the parchment and ended up having to shift it over. Slashing was not the easiest proposition because I don’t really have an appropriate tool for the job. I sharpened a knife and did my best, but I was concerned about tearing and deflating, so my slashes were all on the faint side.

Baking and Cooling (for which we were given no French terminology)

French bread - above and below

My loaves baked up perfectly. I did the boule on its own, and the two batards together. For the boule, I went to the trouble of removing the parchment from under it after I had finished the three water spritzing sessions, but had a heck of a time getting the baked loaf on the paddle afterwards (it was so light that it just slid off the stone into the back of the oven when I tried to get it), so I left the batards on their paper. My biggest concern during this step was breaking my beautifully seasoned baking stone because of the cold water/steam action, but it held up just fine.

French bread - baked batard

I ended up removing the loaves from the oven a few minutes earlier than called for, once they had a deep enough color; I think this was the right move, because they were definitely done when we sliced into them. I often don’t care much for French bread because it can be quite crusty and hurts my hard palate after a while. Perhaps the baking time as called for would have produced such a crust, but my loaves came out just to my tastes: sturdy yet squeezable.

French bread - freshly baked

Cooling was indeed one of the most difficult aspects of this recipe. The bread was finished much too late for dinnertime once I gave it the two hours of cooling specified by the recipe, but we couldn’t resist slicing up the boule for a late night snack at 11:00pm, (with olive oil and balsamic for dipping, of course!). It was absolutely delicious. The interior was aerated and fluffy, and the crust was toothsome and full of caramelized flavor. I know some folks felt that their loaves came out salty, but we didn’t notice that at all. Jeremy is a something of an elitist when it comes to baking bread—when making it himself, he favors recipes that involve delayed fermentation, sometimes over the course of several days—and I think this was the first one-day bread I’ve made that genuinely impressed him. Twelve hours of combined rising and prep time still counts as one-day bread, right? Anyhow, we found Julia Child’s bread recipe to be a complete success, despite—or, more likely, because of—the lengthy preparation and incredible detail it requires. It may not have been a Valentine-specific challenge for February, but that doesn’t make this recipe any less a labor of love to complete.

French bread - sliced

As you know, my effort was just one of hundreds, so make sure you visit the Daring Bakers Blogroll to see how everyone else fared. If you’d like to try your hand at making Julia’s French bread as well, the (very long) recipe is available at The Sour Dough here.

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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