This holiday season, one of my goals was to master baking the French baguette. I wasn’t successful. But what came out of the effort is an image seared forever on my brain, one I’ve come to think of as a special Christmas gift from my oven to me.
The baguette is one of my most beloved breads, in no small part because it reminds me of Montreal. At my favorite restaurants, baguette is accompanied by salted butter, and sometimes paired with olive tapenade or even rillettes or cretons, which are country versions of pâté. The bread is always perfect — nice and crusty on the outside with a crumb that is flavorful yet tender.
But baking a great baguette is no small accomplishment. Any recipe I’ve found involves at least two pages of very particular instruction. The difficulty has everything to do with getting that crust crusty. To a lesser degree, it also involves handling, for quite a while, a piece of dough that is nearly two feet long.
I started off by borrowing my friend Rick’s perforated baguette pan, which has three troughs or cradles, inside of each sits a long piece of baguette dough. The goal of the pan is to help shape the baguette as it rises. I also liked the idea that steam would get to the underside of these baguettes because of the perforations. This, it seemed, would help crust production.
I started with a Bon Appétit recipe. The dough did pretty well in the pan … until it didn’t and rose so much it surpassed the top of the troughs and started sticking to itself. In the end, I had a sheet of bread instead of three individual loaves and while it tasted OK, the crust disappeared after the bread cooled.
Next I turned to Peter Reinhart, chiding myself for not using his great cookbook in the first place. Reinhart didn’t suggest using a baguette pan, but instead wanted me to form what is called a “couche,” which is essentially letting the baguette dough rise within the trough-like folds of a linen tea towel. But, like, I had the pan and the pan seemed pretty professional so, yeah, I used it instead.
Except for when I formed the baguettes, I had one extra piece of dough. Still not following Reinhart’s instructions by bothering with a couche, I floured my wooden pizza peel and placed this piece of dough on that to rise.
One of the most important parts of baking a good baguette is a really, really hot oven. So I heated mine to 500 and kept it there for an hour. I also had my pizza stone inside, as instructed, along with a baking sheet underneath it so I could add water to create steam. The pizza stone and the steam are both to facilitate crust production.
When the bread had risen, I placed the baguette pan on the pizza stone. Easy. Now I just had my mini baguette with which to contend. I tried to slide it off the pizza peel onto the pizza stone but it was stuck. At this point, with my face in 500-degree heat, 500-degree heat that was quickly emptying out of my oven the longer the door was open, I pulled the dough off the peel with my hand and dropped it on the pizza stone. One small end was tucked under the rest of the length of dough, but I didn’t want to risk burning myself on the extremely hot pizza stone so I let it be.
At the time, my husband was having his computer fixed by the hospital IT guy and they were in the basement. But eventually, the delicious aroma of bread baking brought them upstairs.
“How’s it going?” my husband asked.
I opened the oven, saw what was inside and immediately slammed it shut with such force it made William’s eyebrows raise.
“Going well,” I said in my most domesticated housewife voice. “Little longer still.”
Luckily, they left the room and I started laughing so hard and so quietly tears were nearly popping out of my eyes. When the IT guy finally left, I grabbed William’s hand and led him to the kitchen. By now I had pulled the bread out of the oven. The regular baguettes stayed in the baguette pan. The piece of dough I had put directly on the pizza stone was now nestled under a towel.
It was, I have to say, a reveal worthy of a makeover show. For under that towel was a piece of bread that looked exactly like a man’s naughty bits. And I do mean all of them. The dough that had tucked underneath itself on the pizza stone had bulged and even collected some of the burned bits from the pizza stone so it looked … furry. The other end of the baguette had tapered and its coloring was even a little striated so it looked like it had … veins. So anatomically correct, so convincing a replica, it seemed impossible that I hadn’t done it on purpose. It was like discovering Jesus’s face in a piece of toast: meant to be.
At any rate, in the end, I didn’t master the baguette. But I sure will never forget how hard I tried.