Baking Day at the Casa de Wicker. I usually bake three baguettes on weekends and then cut them in half and freeze them wrapped in aluminum foil for sandwiches during the workweek. This weekend I was called upon for a bit more—a double batch of baguettes and an apple pie.
With the downturn in temperatures, Ursula was in the mood for one of her favorite Swiss winter cheese specialties—Raclette or fondue and fondue won out as we were hosting our good next-door friends, Randi and Jim Brewer for dinner Sunday. Jim’s favorite desert also just happens to be apple pie, and I’d just discovered a new recipe I wanted to try. So . . . .
But a really good, traditional cheese fondue requires a good, traditional, crusty French baguette. Time to go to work, and work began the day before—on Saturday.
This recipe, borrowed and modified slightly from Alton Brown’s Knead Not Sourdough recipe (and very similar to my related pizza dough recipe), is just too simple to waste time and money going to the local bakery for a product that is probably inferior in taste, texture, and crunch.
One pound, two ounces (18 ounces total avoirdupois—as in weight—ounces) bread flour
1 tbs. course Kosher salt (half that amount if using fine-grain table salt)
¼ tsp. yeast
12 fluid ounces of warm tap water
In a large pan or Dutch oven, stir together the salt and flour. Dissolve the yeast in the water or also stir into the flour (your choice; both work). Stir water into the flour mixture and combine until the water is completely incorporated into the flour. Cover the dough and let ferment for nineteen hours, folding or stirring occasionally (I do this using a dough scrapper once before going to bed and once again after awakening in the a.m.) to redistribute the yeast, make sure the flour is completely incorporated, and to ensure that there are not dry spots. No kneading necessary. Yep—it’s that simple!
Sprinkle more flour onto the counter, a glass cutting board, or a marble or granite pastry board. Measure out the dough into three equal amounts. I usually get around 856 grams (30.2 ounces) of dough which, when divided by three, give me three portions of dough weighing approximately 285 grams (10 ounces) each.
Using your hands, roll the dough portions into three long, thin ropes approximately eighteen inches in length (use lots of flour here or the dough will be too sticky to work). Place the dough ropes onto a three-trough, nonstick, perforated baguette pan (see a picture of mine below). Cover the baguette pan with a large roasting pan to keep the dough from drying out while the loaves rise. Let the loaves rise for one and a half (warm kitchen) to two hours (cooler kitchen) until at least doubled in bulk.
When the loaves have at least one hour more to rise, place a cast iron skillet into your oven on a rack in its lowest position. Place another rack into place above the skillet, just high enough to clear the skillet. Preheat the oven to 450° F (230° Celsius). You want that skillet and the inside of the oven heated thoroughly, so err on the side of longer time rather than shorter.
With ten minutes or less in rising time to go, take a razor, hobby knife (such as an Exacto), or other extremely sharp implement and make three to four long, half-inch deep slashes down the center of the loaves, offsetting each slash slightly from one side to the other. Just before the loaves go into the oven, pour one cup of water into the heated skillet. Caution: Steam will burn you. Rapidly. That flash of steam is water vapor that was suddenly heated to 450°, so get your hands away from that steam immediately. Shut the oven door for a couple of minutes to build up the humidity in the oven. This humidity, contrary to expectations, is what will give your baguettes that incredible, crunchy crust.
Quickly open the oven door and slide the baguette pan onto the upper rack above the skillet (I use a pizza spatula for this to keep my hand from being steam burned). Shut the door as soon as possible. Bake the baguettes for 20 minutes. Remove the skillet and bake the baguettes for another five minutes. Removing the skillet allows direct heat to brown the underside of the loaves.
You’re done. Remove the baguette pan and your crispy, homemade baguettes should have a nice, evenly browned patina on all sides. Let the baguettes cool atop a rack, or even leave them on the baguette tray to cool if you desire.
If you’re going to freeze the loaves, wrap them in heavy-duty aluminum foil. When you’re ready to serve the bread, unwrap the loaf and place it directly into a preheated 400° F (200° Celsius) oven for ten minutes to crisp up the crust again. Remove and allow to cool (and the inside to completely defrost) for twenty minutes, then serve.
Cast iron seasoning tip: While your skillet is still hot, remove it from the oven and pour out any remaining water and quickly dry the surface. Take a good, high-temperature cooking oil (peanut, corn, safflower, sunflower, or soybean, for example) and thoroughly coat the pan on all sides and the bottom, but especially on the inside rim and along the bottom cooking surface. Because of the intense heat, the oil will seal the iron for a rust-resistant coating on the outside and a relatively nonstick surface on the inside. Remember—never wash a good, well-seasoned cast iron pan in soapy water. Doing so will strip away the protective, nonstick oil coating. To scrub out a cast iron skillet, Dutch over, or pan, use salt mixed with cooking oil as an abrasive and wipe away the salt-oil mixture once the pan is scrubbed clean. If your cast iron is ever exposed to soap or detergent, you’ll have to start the seasoning process all over again, so be careful.