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Pursuing perfect bread

One of the small but memorable pleasures that attends a trip to France is the opportunity to enjoy the simple perfection of French breads. I'm not talking about anything fancy here, just the crisp, crackling crust and airy, subtle, delicious crumb of the everyday baguette that accompanies breakfast just about anywhere you go.

This is true of Italian bread, too, although to my untutored palate we're talking about essentially the same thing: A simple white loaf that takes just four ingredients - flour, yeast, salt and water, nothing more - and magically converts them into one of the most addictive foods imaginable.

Baking bread is usually a winter occupation for me - there's something about chilly days and blustery evenings that fits a hot oven and a warm loaf just right - and I've been doing it fairly often this past winter, usually fashioning some variation on the pane casalinga recipe that I featured on Dec. 11.

Spring is drawing near in these latitudes, but I figure I'll bake a few more loaves before it gets warm enough to discourage use of the oven. Today, I thought it would be fun to skip the usual recipe in favor of a random list of tips and ideas that I've come up with in pursuit of the perfect French/Italian loaf.

To begin, let me refer you to the original recipe in our archives. The pane casalinga article is online at If you prefer a version formatted for easy printing out and use in the kitchen, see

Now, more or less in the order we encounter them, let's talk about concepts and variations.

THE FLOUR: The original recipe calls for a mix of unbleached white bread flour (or all-purpose flour) with a smallish amount of whole-wheat flour blended in. (Some friends suggest substituting rye flour for the whole-wheat for a flavor variation.) This adds a bit of color and texture, which is good, but I've found that even the recommended 1/2 cup of whole-wheat with 3 1/2 cups of white yields a loaf that's darker than I recall from France. Lately I've been reducing the whole wheat to 1/4 cup or less, just a homeopathic dose to boost the loaf's wheaten flavor. While any commercial flour will do, I strongly recommend bread flour over all-purpose - its hard-wheat, high-protein configuration takes to kneading well and creates the best bread texture. I'm a great fan of King Arthur flour, a high-quality American brand that in my opinion is worth its price difference. Website:

AMOUNTS: Quantity can be a problem when you're baking for two. Basic French and Italian bread goes stale quickly because it contains no fat, and many recipes that call for six cups of flour or more make a lot of bread. Even the pane casalinga recipe here makes two fair-size baguette loaves, and in our house, the second loaf sometimes goes to waste. I've tried two approaches in an effort to save it: First, let the second loaf cool completely. Wrap it tightly in aluminum foil, and freeze it. This works OK, although the thawed loaf seems a little dry and may be best toasted. Alternatively, cut the dough into two portions. Make your first day's bread with one portion; put the other half in a lightly greased bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator. The next day (or the day after), bring it back to room temperature, form it into a loaf and bake. I prefer this method, as the additional period of slow rising and falling in the fridge seems to develop additional yeast flavor, and I get to have fresh bread twice without much extra work. Don't wait too long, though; the yeast may either die or develop unpredictable flavors over time.

SPEAKING OF YEAST: Long and slow fermentation is the key to this recipe, and the long (overnight) fermentation of the "biga" as the first step seems to make a perceptible difference in the bread's complex, yeasty and very gently sour flavor. You can short-cut the process by making the biga in the morning and baking at night, but it's worth the effort to let it go overnight. Once I tried a two-step, two-night process in which I made the biga a day early, then on the second evening used it to make a "sponge" with additional flour and water, which then received a second day's rising. I didn't find that this extra time and effort made much difference, but if you like to experiment, you might try it and see what you think. I do not recommend "rapid rise" yeast - slow is good, fast is not. (For the same reason, leave your biga, and your bread, to rise in a cool place. A warmer environment may help your bread rise faster, but you want that gentle, hours-long fermentation so the flavor will develop as much as possible.) I have had good success, by the way, with "instant yeast" from Oetker, a European brand that mixes directly in with the flour without dissolving first in warm water. In bread, just as in beer and wine, different "strains" of yeast confer different flavors, and I like the clean, subtle quality of this German variety.

KNEADING: The recipe suggests using the food processor to knead this bread, but I find that I've been moving away from that practice. It doesn't really save much time, especially when cleanup is taken into consideration; I find traditional mixing and kneading enjoyable, and I have more control over the process, adding just a little flour at a time until the dough feels just right.

THE BAKING SHEET: Lately I've been using a large professional baker's sheet made of aluminum with a "crinkled" surface that doesn't require greasing. This is handy for quick preparation and cleanup. Sometimes, as the spirit moves me, I'll use the Italian technique of sprinkling a little cornmeal on the baking sheet where the loaf will rest, which helps deter sticking and also adds a pleasant flavor and crunch to the bottom crust.

ATTAINING THE PERFECT CRUST: A lovable characteristic of French bread is the way its crust cracks into small fragments that shatter and go flying across the room when you cut into it or bite it. The best way to achieve this, I've found, is to ensure high heat and humidity, especially during the first few minutes of baking when "ovenspring" (quick rise in the oven) occurs; and do not glaze the loaf with water, milk, cream, egg or egg white before baking. Here's my recommended technique, derived from Bernard Clayton's excellent bread cookbooks and my own experience: Set up your oven with the top rack in a high position, and put an empty metal pan (a bread loaf pan is fine) on the rack below it. Thoroughly pre-heat the oven, warming it for at least a half-hour before baking, to an extremely hot 500F (260C). Just before baking, pour 1 cup of warm water into the hot pan, taking care not to burn yourself on the burst of steam that will emerge. Close the door tightly for five minutes, then put in the bread. Don't open the door, even to peek, for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat to 450F (230C), turn the pan around, and bake for another 10 minutes. Turn the pan one more time, to ensure even browning, and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes or until the loaf is brown. Let it cool for 20 minutes or so on a rack that allows air circulation around it before serving. As delicious as it seems to enjoy butter-melting hot bread, it's even better after it has had time to cool and crackle.

For my next project, I'm thinking about making a true sourdough bread, capturing wild yeast from the Ohio Valley air and using it to make a natural levain loaf without any commercial yeast. If you've experimented with this, I would love to hear your suggestions. And of course, if you have and questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Pursuing perfect bread"

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Thursday, March 11, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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