French bread the hard way

IMG_3816Recipe titles and directions are sometimes misleading.  We’ve all heard of the Chinese dish called hundred-year and sometimes thousand-year eggs. According to Wikipedia, these actually take about a month to make. The title comes from the centuries-old recipe cooks use to make them.

The bread you see in the photo, which came out of our oven yesterday, is simply known as French bread, but should have a more descriptive and correct name, such as “Forever French bread.” This isn’t a statement about how long it lasts, but how long it takes to make it. Even more appropriate would be, “You’d better read the directions before you start and make no other plans for two weeks” French bread.

Here’s how you produce these loaves. You start by making a levain, a starter that works like yeast to cause your bread dough to rise.  The alternative is to buy a jar of Fleischmann’s yeast, but apparently it’s not as “natural” as levain. Why use a product that you can buy at the grocery store that is ready to use in five minutes when you can make one that you won’t do you any good for nine days? Because the recipe says you’ll be making genuine French bread, just like you’ll find in a patisserie in Paris, that’s why.  Not having been to Paris I have no idea what this means, but if I can make authentic French bread in my kitchen, what’s nine extra days?

The recipe writer is very clear that if you want the genuine article, you’d better not screw up any step along the way. My first mistake was that I didn’t count correctly and extended my levain production into ten days.

The next step is to mix up your levain with flour, salt and water, knead and let the dough rise for twelve hours.  The main challenge here is that when the twelve-hour period expired I wanted it to occur when I was home, and even more importantly, awake. What this meant is that after we arrived home late from a party Saturday night, we had to make and knead bread dough.  Still, I thought, it would be ready to bake the next afternoon. Perfect timing.  I read a little further into the directions and swore.  “Twelve more hours.  I can’t believe it.  It has to rise twenty-four hours total.  But I’ve invited friends to come eat fresh bread at six p.m., not at midnight.”

This discovery meant that the bread could only rise eighteen out of the mandatory twenty-four hours.  It turned out okay, good enough for us and our guests to eat a loaf and a half. However, I wasn’t satisfied.  It wasn’t quite like I imagined real French bread, so the next day, using twelve-day old levain, we set out to rectify our timing errors.  The only thing I didn’t consider was that we were setting four sticky loaves in pans to rise and covering them with sticky plastic wrap. Twenty-four hours later, we admired our perfectly shaped loaves and then tried to remove the plastic wrap as we watched all four beauties collapsing in front of us.

The good news was that despite their slovenly appearance, they really did taste good.  Now our options are to try the recipe again and have real French bread two weeks from now or go to the bakery and have it today.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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3 Responses to French bread the hard way

  1. Marilyn says:

    Let me know the date and time it’s coming out of the oven. . .or is there a cooling period, too.

  2. Jan says:

    Been there, done that, and it isn’t worth the effort. Head for a good French bakery and buy a loaf! Or, make that 2 or 3 loaves. One for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner like they do in Paris! No french cook bakes bread, or pastries!!

  3. Pingback: French bread-making as an Olympic event | Still Life

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