Just as there is a special place in my heart for brioche, there also lies one for a perfect baguette. What makes a baguette perfect? Well, the industry places certain standards on the baguette. It must weigh 350g, 14 oz pre-baked. It must be 22 inches long and it can only be scored or cut 5 or 7 times. Easy, right? Not on your life!
There are so many opportunities to screw up the baguette along the way. I'm amazed and excited when mine turn out the way I hope. It starts with a dough. As I've mentioned before, I use poolish in my French dough. The poolish is 50% water and 50% flour with a pinch of yeast (technically 1% of the flour weight). This mixture sits for 18 hours before it is mature enough to use in the dough. I know it is mature when I see big bubbles beneath the surface and there isn't too much resistance in the gluten network. Each morning, the first thing I do is to dump my poolish tub (a rubber maid trash can) into the cold steel mixing bowl. Then I add the appropriate amount of water and flour for the batch size I'm mixing. These days my batches are about 60 pounds. I mix these three ingredients at a very slow speed just until there are no big flour lumps. I stop the mix, cover the bowl with a garbage bag and wait for at least 20 minutes.
Waiting....this is called autolyse. Autolyse is a method developed by the grandfather of bread, Raymond Calvel. He is a Frenchman who wrote 'Le Gout du Pain.' 'The taste of bread,' is a scientific approach to baking and one of my all time favorite books. At any rate, during autolyse the protein in the flour starts to digest itself lending to a more extensible gluten network. Extensiblity is important when you're striving for 22 inches! During the baking world cup, Team USA, autolysed their dough overnight. I have to admit, I didn't think that autolyse was a needed step until I started using it. My dough is much happier now that I take the proper time to let it do it's thing.
After the 20 minutes are up, I add the salt and the yeast to the dough and continue to mix on a slow speed. My dough is only mixed on high speed for a minute or two. I don't want to fully develop the gluten in the dough because I want to leave that up to time. This method of slow fermentation will help to bring out the flavor and the texture of the bread. Think- ciabatta versus bagels. I then cut the dough out of the mixer with a sharp knife, into oiled tubs (again, gotta love rubbermaid). If I were to pull off pieces of dough rather than cut it, I would be damaging the gluten network. The dough sits in the tubs for about an hour before I fold it, punch it down, turn it...whatever the lingo, I'm simply stretching out the dough and folding it over itself. This process evens out the temperature of the dough and gives the yeast a brand new source of food. It is also a gentle way of developing the gluten a little more.
After another hour passes, I start to divide the dough into it's final portions. Again, I cut off pieces with a sharp bench knife and weigh them out on a balance scale. These pieces are then shaped into little logs that rest for 15 minutes or so before I start rolling them out into baguettes. The baguette shaping is in line for the most difficult part of the process. If I hadn't spent night after night, shaping thousands of baguettes at Amy's Bread, I would still be an awful baguette shaper. The shape has to be a perfect line but the propensity to end up with a dog bone where there is less dough in the center, is very high. Once I shape my perfect baguettes, I line them up on a wooden board, snuggled in a couche , or linen, to rest and rise. 'Coucher' means 'to sleep' in French. This is where they stay until they've properly risen.
When they are ready to bake, I flip them onto my oven loader with a 'planchette.' This board is a gentle way of moving the baguettes to a new surface. I then score them, the other most difficult part of the process. These five lines are cuts made with a straight razor called a 'lame' (pronounced like the beginning of 'llama' not like the word for 'uncool'). The cuts have to be a an exact 45 degree angle. They overlap slightly and they run down the exact center of the baguette. If I get this right, the baguettes 'ears' will open up, yielding a beautiful final product.
I leave the soldiers in the oven until they are a a little darker than golden brown. I'd say it's more of a mahogany. The dark color is the 'Maillard Reaction' which is kind of like carmelization. If the baguettes are light in color they will have much less flavor. Think in terms of sugar...plain, white, uncooked sugar tastes sweet but once it is cooked, the resulting caramel is teaming with flavor.
That's it. A day in the life of a baguette. I have to mention, my son Keegan was exactly 22 inches long the day he was born. Is this nature's way of telling me I chose the right profession?