More than anything else, seeing a bicyclist with a shopping bag hanging from the handlebars and a three foot long loaf of bread under her arm convinced me that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I was not in Kansas anymore. Or in my case, no longer in Wisconsin.
People do not carry unwrapped loaves of bread under their arms in Wisconsin, certainly not while riding bicycles, but it is still a common sight in Europe. The longest loaves I saw were in Paris, France, but nearly every baker at the market in Münster, Germany, where I was a student, had a bin filled with long skinny loaves that gave me another reason to call bread “the staff of life.”
These long loaves are called baguettes. In French the word means simply baton or wand, so the conductor at a concert uses a baguette de direction to lead the orchestra and the magician waves his baguette magique over the scarf-covered top hat to make the rabbit appear.
You can make your own magic wands with just flour, water, yeast and salt, though I like to add a fifth ingredient, a pinch or two of sugar, to encourage the yeast. When your loaves are done, you can entertain your family and guests by waving a baguette over the table before you cut it into pieces and pass the butter, cheese or herbed olive oil. Once they taste the new bread, they will applaud you as the “kitchen magician.”
1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 tsp. sugar
2 1/4 tsp. yeast (1 package)
About 3 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt
Heat the water until it feels warm but not hot when you sprinkle a drop or two on the inside of your wrist, just as if you were testing the contents of a baby bottle. Put the water in a mixing bowl, and stir in the sugar and yeast. Let the yeast proof for five to ten minutes until it begins to foam.
Put a cup of bread flour into the liquid and stir it well. Repeat with the second cup of flour, at which point the mixture will be a thick batter. Now add flour a quarter cup at a time, stirring thoroughly between each addition. On average you will need to add a little more than three-quarters of a cup of flour to end up with a soft but firm dough. It is better to have a dough that is slightly too soft, since you will add more flour while kneading.
Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let it stand in a warm, draft-free place for half an hour. The dough will rise noticeably in this time, since you have not added any salt, which retards yeast growth. Scrape the dough from the bowl on to a lightly floured work surface. It will be a little sticky. Use a spatula to turn the dough and flatten it a bit. Sprinkle a half teaspoon of salt on it. Fold the dough, turn it once again and sprinkle on another half teaspoon of salt.
Knead the dough for five to six minutes until it is smooth and elastic, keeping your hands and the work surface lightly floured. Kneading distributes the salt through the dough and of course gives you that nice bread texture. Form the dough into a ball.
Coat the inside of the mixing bowl with cooking spray and roll the ball of dough in the bowl to lightly grease the surface. Cover with the damp towel and let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume, usually forty-five minutes to an hour.
Sprinkle a light coating of cornmeal on a baking sheet. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into thirds and form each piece into a rope a little over an inch in diameter and twelve to fourteen inches long with tapered ends. Put the ropes on the prepared baking sheet, coat them lightly with cooking spray and cover them with a damp towel. Let them rise until they have doubled in size, usually about half an hour.
Preheat the oven to 450º.
When the loaves have doubled in size, use a very sharp knife to cut three or four diagonal slits about a quarter inch deep on the top of each loaf. Bake on the center shelf for eighteen to twenty minutes until the loaves are light brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
NOTES: If you want a crispier crust, you can toss three or four ice cubes into a preheated baking pan on the bottom shelf in the oven when you start baking the baguettes. I sometimes do this when I make Italian Feather Bread, but so far I have been happy with baguettes baked without the ice cubes.