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Baguettes à l'Ancienne
I hate to burst anyone's fantasies, but the typical baguette in a Parisian bakery, that very symbol of French cuisine, simply isn't very good, made quickly by machine, from pumped-up flour. If you ask for a baguette à l'ancienne, however, you might pay a little more, but get an artisan baguette, made slowly, with a wild-yeast starter. This is my own interpretation of such a baguette. Take solace in the fact that, no matter how badly you might think it comes out, it is better than half the baguettes sold in Paris.

The long, cold fermentation brings out the natural sugars of the wheat. I usually ferment the dough overnight in the refrigerator, but I've made these the same day with a 4-hour refrigerated fermentation, and I can't tell the difference.

This recipe makes four mini-baguettes or three slightly larger ones.

Ingredients

375 g all-purpose flour
250 g levain
215 g water
¼ teas. instant yeast
10 g salt

    Prepare the dough

  1. Feed levain at least 2 hours or the night before beginning.
  2. Mix all ingredients and allow dough to rest, covered ("autolyse") for about 25 min.
  3. Knead by hand for about 7 minutes until dough is silky and elastic.
  4. Cover with oil-misted plastic wrap. If doing an overnight fermentation, place immediately in refrigerator. For same-day baking, ferment at room temperature for 2 hours, then ferment in refrigerator an additional 4 hours.
  5. Remove from refrigerator and wait for dough to reach temperature (2 to 3 hours).

    Form loaves and proof

  6. Place an old cast-iron skillet on the bottom shelf of your oven and a pizza stone near the middle rack.
  7. Preheat oven to 500°F.
  8. On a floured countertop, divide dough into 4 equal parts of about 212 grams each (don't go crazy trying to make them all exactly the same), shape into balls, and allow to rest, covered for 15 minutes. (I sometimes omit this step if in a hurry, but it does help to relax the dough for the next step.)
  9. Press each ball into approximately a 3- by 5-inch rectangle, and form baguettes as shown in the accompanying video. You should have nice little blisters or bubbles of gas in the dough - leave them!
  10. Proof in a floured couche (a heavy linen canvas) or, lacking that, between folds of parchment paper, for 45-60 minutes.

    Score and bake

  11. With four baguettes to place into your oven, it's sometimes easier to use a wide baking sheet rather than your peel. Sprinkle the sheet liberally with corn meal or rice flour (or cover with a sheet of parchment paper), transfer the baguettes to it (I use a narrow piece of quarter-inch plywood as a flipping board, but you can use transfer them by hand as well).
  12. Using a fresh single-edged razor or a lame, make several overlapping diagonal slashes on each baguette.
  13. Transfer the baguettes to the stone with a clean jerk back of the baking sheet. Quickly add a cup of water to the skillet and turn oven down to 480°F.
  14. Bake for 20-25 minutes until crust is a rich brown and center registers 210°F or a rap on the bottom of the loaf produces a hollow percussion sound.
  15. Cool on rack.