Back in April, my husband Joe Dillard had the privilege of learning how to make French Bread from Greg Patent. I gifted him a weekend where he could have hands on experience with an award winning cookbook author. Patent’s book Baking in America won him the James Beard Cookbook Award and finalist recognition for the International Association of Culinary Professionals Best Baking Book. Greg has become a mentor and has provided me invaluable support and advice in the culinary arena over the years.
At age 19, Greg Patent won second place in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest with his Apricot Dessert Bars. Patent’s affection for baking began when he was 11-years-old. His mother bought him The Betty Crocker picture cookbook. “I looked through the book and I thought: I’ll bake biscuits because biscuits looked really easy to do. And so, I made a batch of biscuits and they were a total disaster.” His mother sent him to Mrs. Brown, their landlady, who gave Patent tips that when remaking the biscuits resulted in success.
Yearly, Patent baked out of the Pillsbury Bake-Off Recipe books. “I would look through the book to see if anything interested me.” His favorite cookie bar recipe was a date oatmeal bar and he loved apricots. By substituting in apricots, coconut and walnuts he created the recipe that won him $1000 in the tenth recipe book.
But it was Edith Green who first inspired Patent to bake. Green had a cooking show on television in San Francisco in the 1950s. Green “reminded me of my mother’s mother, my Iraqi grandma who was a famous baker,” Patent continued, “And I thought based on what I saw Edith Green was doing I would really like to try baking.”
Shortly after Patent got married, the cookbook, Mastering the Art of French cooking came out. He would watch Julia Child when her show, The French Chef aired on WGBH, the public television station in Boston, Massachusetts and use the series as a cooking and baking tutorial.
But it is Maida Heatter who Patent believes is the “Queen of Baking.” “And her first baking book came out in 1974 and it was Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts. I bought that book in 1976 and I made every single recipe in that book.” Patent would have been a prolific blogger if blogging had existed back then.
French bread is basically flour, water and yeast. The true secrets of a perfectly baked loaf are adding in the ingredients of time, patience and precision. Having the right equipment and tools helps. Patent recommends the following:
Scale: Just using cups and spoons for measuring do not provide the exact precision.
Thermometer: Temperature is extremely important. Since the idea working temperature is around 75 degrees F, everything influences that number. It is important to not only know the temperature of the ambient environment but also that of the water used and of the dough. Then having accurate oven temperature is important too. Patent favors a Thermapen with a probe that can be inserted easily into working ingredients.
Marble Board: Patent kneads his bread on a marble board because it keeps temperatures cool. The board helps moderate the activation of the yeast.
Canvas Cloth: A canvas cloth is versatile in that it provides a nonstick surface for the rising of the baguettes. That is, once it is well floured and well used. The cloth can be shaped into troughs that provide the nesting wells for the formed breads.
Unmolding board: This can be a piece of plywood or something that is specifically a large paddle for flipping bread into the oven.
The following are helpful items to have:
Pastry scraper: This helps in removing and lifting off all the sticky dough from work surfaces.
Spray bottle: Quick misting bursts of water can easily be sprayed into the hot oven.
Baking tiles: Tiles provide the hot surface for baking bread.
Nonstick Baking Mat: The mat which can be used over and over provides a nonstick surface for baking.
Though simple, making and baking bread hold some magic. It is a process that requires care and attention. Then the results are spiritual as there is nothing better than the smell of bread baking. But even more, life is perfect when one takes the first bite into a slice of warm bread slathered with butter. This is truly Bon Appetit!
From From Julia Child’s Kitchen by Julia Child
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975, page 460-465
Pain français FRENCH BREAD
Ingredients for 3 loaves 16 to 18 inches long and 3 inches in diameter
1 package dry-active yeast
1/3 cup tepid water (not over 105 degrees or you may kill the yeast)
3 ½ cups (1 pound) all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached (measure by dipping dry-measure cups into flour and sweeping all excess)
A fairly straight-sided mixing bowl, 3- to 4-quart capacity (if sides slant outward, dough spreads out too much and has difficulty in rising)
2 ¼ tsp salt
1 ¼ cups tepid water
A rubber spatula
A wooden or plastic working surface about 2 feet square
A pastry scraper or stiff spatula
Final rising of formed loaves
A canvas pastry cloth, available in any household department; or a heavy linen towel
A large baking sheet or tray, 20 by 24 inches
A floured towel
About ½ cup cornmeal
An unmolding board – a stiff piece of cardboard, a shingle, apiece of plywood, or a baking sheet wrapped in a floured towel – 18 inches long and at least 4 inches wide
Your largest baking sheet
An atomizer or some sort, filled with cold water; or a soft brush and a cup of cold water
The dough mixture: Stir the yeast into the 1/3 cup of water and let dissolve; measure the flour into the mixing bowl, add the salt, and the rest of the water. Then stir yeast with spatula until granules have dissolved onto working surface, and let rest 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile wash out bowl, pour in 10 ½ cups tepid water, and mark level on outside to guide you later when the dough rises. Drain and dry the bowl.
Kneading: Dough should be quite soft and sticky. Start kneading by flipping one side over onto the other with scraper or spatula; continue this movement rapidly for a number of seconds, until dough begins to have enough body so that you can push it with the heel of your hand after flipping. Finally, sweep dough off work surface with scraper, and throw it roughly back; flip it over, sweep it up, slap it down, and continue thus, vigorously, until dough feels free of lumps and draws back when pushed out. Let rest again for 2 minutes. Knead again for a minute or two; dough should be soft, smooth, elastic, and pliable. Scoop into clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. (You now have approximately 3 cups of dough; kneading time is 8 to 10 minutes.)
First and second risings in bowl: 3 ½ hours minimum. Let rise at room temperature of between 70 and 75 degrees, until dough reaches the 10 ½ cup level marked on the bowl – 3 to 5 hours. Lightly flour working surface, and scoop dough onto it. Flatten (patting with the lightly floured palms of your hads) into 10- to 12-inch circle. Flip near side over onto far side then left side onto right, and finally flip near side completely over and just under far side. Clean out bowl, lift dough back into it, cover, and let rise again almost to the previous level. 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours at 70 to 75 degrees.
Forming long loaves, and final rise: 1 ½ hours minimum. Scoop dough out onto lightly floured surface, and cu cleanly into 3 pieces. Flip near side of each over onto far side and let rest 4 to 5 minutes.
One at a time, flatten a piece of dough with lightly floured palms of hands, patting left and right into an oval 8 or more inches long.
Flip near side almost up to far side; flatten again. Always lightly dusting work surface with flour, flip far side almost down over near side. Flatten again. Then, with the heel or side of your hand, press a trench lengthwise across center of dough.
Fold in two by flipping far side down to cover near side.
Seal the two edges with the heel of your hand.
You now have a fat sausage shape; lengthen it to fit the length of your baking sheet as follows: place your hands together, palms down, at the center of the sausage shape; rotating it back and forth under your palms, slide your hands toward the two ends.
Keeping the circumference as even as possible, repeat the movement several times as you roll the dough into as long a sausage you wish.
Rub flour into surface of pastry cloth, and place dough sealed side up (if you can still find the seal), at one side of cloth. Pinch a ridge in cloth to make a trough to divide the pieces of dough. Form the two other pieces and lay on cloth.
Cover loosely with a floured towel, and let rise to almost tripe at 70 to 75 degrees; dough should look puffed and swollen. Time: 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours.
Baking: 30 to 40 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle cornmeal over surface of baking sheet and along edge of unmolding board.
One at a time, flip formed dough from canvas to unmolding board, and arrange on baking sheet, soft underside of dough on top.
Immediately make the three lengthwise slashes in the top of the dough with a razor, cutting almost parallel to surface, as follows: 1st, from one end down a third of the length, just left of center and off a little to the left; 2nd , from upper to lower third, at a slight angle from right to left across the middle; 3rd, from lower third to end of loaf, just right of center, slanting left.
At once, spray surface of loaves with a light film of water, and set in lowest level oven. At minute 2, rapidly spray surface again; at minute 4, spray again. At minute 6, set in upper-middle level, and spray a final time.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes in all, until loaves are crusty and sound hollow when thumped. Turn off oven, and leave 5 to 10 minutes longer, to dry out interior, then remove, and place upright to let air circulate freely around the loaves until they cool.