I have two perfect 16-inch loaves of French baguette in my refrigerator.
This is the result of a morning of baking with the girls, between stints of playing outside and reading and eating lunch. There were several steps to get those loaves in the fridge, and there will be a few more before it bakes and gets pulled out to be eaten with thawed vegetable soup from two weeks ago. Perhaps there will also be some $4 Aldi wine, even though it is a Tuesday.
First, there was some mysterious process of waking up the yeast into a bubble. In addition to the yeast, all-purpose flour and warm water were thrown into the stand mixer to make a nice, wet dough. This sat on its own for an hour to come alive, and sure enough, it came alive and began to act wild without any further influence from me.
From there—salt, and a little bread flour added in ½ cup portions, and a good seven minutes of kneading with a dough hook. It turned into a slightly sticky but really manageable, supple dough. And then it rose, and boy did it rise well. After that there was some manipulation of a cookie sheet and shortening, preparing the way for two stretched skinny loaves.
These are going to be chilled for four hours and then sprayed with water and allowed to rise again. And then they’ll be given little cuts on top and baked on a high heat. Sprayed with water again in the oven.
But the result, hopefully, will be crusty, hollow-sounding loaves—two of them—with a good chewy crumby interior and a golden, crusty exterior. They’ll go with soup tonight, and then on Saturday they’ll be the topper in a really stupendous French Onion Soup that I’m premeditating.
Baking… or Witchcraft?
The thing about this baking thing is that because I’m such a novice at it, it still feels a little like dangerous witchcraft to me.
I didn’t do much cooking as a kid or a young adult. When I was a kid, there were too many accidents when people tried to teach me to cook. Forgotten ingredients, forgotten pans on the stovetop, forgotten timers on the oven. My older sister was quite handy with a wooden spoon herself, so she just naturally did all the learning and I did all the eating. They let me go with an indulgent laugh—“Ah, that Tilly; she’s just too spacey for this kind of thing.”
And then when I did start cooking, after getting married, I still avoided baking because it felt like the ultimate killjoy. No room for creativity; just cold, step-by-step recipe prison. Why would anyone do it? Besides, you can buy baked goods at the store. They’re probably just as good.
Then, last year, I began to feel some kind of age-old guttural urge calling to me from somewhere in my feminine subconscious. Bake! Bake! It’s time to bake! All right, I said. Let’s learn to bake. At Christmas, my husband heard me describe the call and he and my in-laws bought me a Kitchenaid mixer. 2017 would be the year of bread, I decided.
I began with bagels, in January. Bagels are a standard bread dough made with bread flour. They are boiled before baking. Endless topping combinations, endless delight in their chewy, fat bodies.
Then I opened my now-trusty Betty Crocker Wedding Edition Cookbook, opened to the quick breads, and began. I tried banana and zucchini breads, similar in concept to their autumn cousin, pumpkin bread. These are breads only in name—moist cakes that utilize the goey properties of a fruit, vegetable, or squash, as the case may be. They are delicious, and they are impossible for anyone to really flub. Even me.
Then I tried more of the yeast breads, as the appetites presented themselves. The Betty Crocker cookbook is fantastic because it has anything that is truly basic, any standard chef’s item that every baker should know.
I experimented with whole wheat breads, potato breads. I made my very first pizza dough from scratch. (And if you knew the number of people that I know who eat homemade pizza from scratch every Friday night, you’d be as ashamed as I am that my first try was this year. Now there’s homemade pizza in our house every other week at least.) I got artisan sourdough lessons from a friend who goes through the entire 3-day process every few weeks. I tried basic sandwich bread with varying mixtures of wheat and white flour. Sprouted breads and spelt breads and gluten free breads. Ciabattas, waffles, sweet steakhouse rolls flavored with coffee and sorghum.
But I have to say, the most pleasure I’ve had in the baking department has been in re-creating your classic white breads—chewy, twice-risen, or moist with potato starch. (Still on the to-do list: Croissants. Biscuits. Soft pretzels.)
The thing that shocks me every time I bake is the magic of the process. Add just one more teaspoon of salt, and the result is different. Add an egg to an eggless dough and it’s a different dough. Use bread flour instead of all-purpose and you get the chewiness you crave. Feed that magic stuff—yeast—and it works and works and its living activity brings you a kind of hocus-pocus result that you have to see to believe.
I think this is how I was won over to the structure of the recipe. When I was young, part of my problem was faulty logic—I believed that as long as all the ingredients went into the finished product, in any order, and were mixed around together, you should get the thing you set out to make. Pudding, angel-food cake, and soup that contains onions would have all proved me wrong. I should have taken a principal from math into the kitchen with me—sometimes the order in which you add, multiply, divide, and subtract matters. This is elementary to solving math problems, and elementary to cooking.
Sometimes you have to sauté the onions first. Sometimes you have to beat the egg-whites.
But the golden, beautiful thing about it is that when you follow the recipe, you get the result in the picture.
No, there’s no direct spiritual lesson in this. I’ve been reading Robert Ferrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, and halfway in he’s reassuring me that sometimes physical substances are beautiful and worth while just as what they are—physical substances. After all, God gave them. He’s responsible for the processes that wake up yeast, caramelize onions, and whip egg whites. So he must approve of us engaging in such practices.
I also think he’d approve of my plan to make 2018 The Year of the Cake. 2019 is tentatively penciled as The Year of the Pie/ Tart.
The baguettes are out of the oven. They smell divine. Thank you to Betty Crocker, thank you to Robert Capon, thank you to Gold’s premium bread flour, and thank you to the God who likes bread. Salute!