Inspirations are all around us, if you take a second to stop and smell the flower. I get many of my culinary inspiration from wonderful movies. Who didn’t feel inspired to recreate wonderful French cuisine after watching Ratatouille, or cooked up Beef Bourguignon and started your own blog after watching Julie and Julia, or craved White Castle after watching Harold and Kumar?
My recent inspiration came from the movie, It’s Complicated, where Meryl Streep’s character, Jane, is a bakery owner. As soon as I saw Jane’s Barefoot Contessa-esque bakery, I told myself that I must apply to a pastry school immediately and learn how to bake like Jane! I absolutely loved the scene where Jane and Steve Martin’s character Adam (a total sweetheart) sneak in the bakery late at night and make chocolate croissants from scratch together. And the scene where they are enjoying homemade Croque Monsieur on Jane’s kitchen counter. Aah, they were just so delicious, so romantic, and simply breathtaking (this is now one of my favorite movies of all time).
Well, the reality is that I don’t want to spend the time and money that will cost me to enroll in a pastry school to learn how to make pastries. I think beautifully plated desserts are a work of art but I’m more interested in learning how to bake yeast breads like French baguettes and sourdoughs and not soufflé or things that are too fancy and delicate. Besides, my goal is not to make a career in the food industry (although the idea of starting a weekend catering business sounds fantastic) so the pastry school idea is out – for now, at least.
But I still had the itch to bake something so I dusted off Peter Reinhart’s bread-baking book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, that’s been sitting in my bookshelf for several years and decided to bake French bread, also known as baguette, on my own. Reinhart’s description and instruction on the overall bread-baking process is incredibly detailed and meticulously explained that even a novice baker like myself can understand every step that in involved in baking a bread. This is perhaps the best cookbook / baking book (or any textbook) I’ve ever read.
Meanwhile, I found a wonderful group called The BBA Challenge on the web, created by Nicole from Pinch My Salt, where she gathered other inspired home bakers to bake through everything from Reinhart’s award-winning book. I was determined to join the group (I even became a fan of the group on Facebook!) but the rule states that participants need to bake every single recipe in the book in the order they appear in the book. Although I love bread and I can eat it every day, I really didn’t know what I would do with 24 bagels I make from one recipe … and I wasn’t too interested in baking things like Panettone … and if my personal trainer sister finds out that I had eaten the entire Sticky Buns by myself (which I would and could), she will make me run 20 miles, plus stairs, plus ad works! So I decided to defer joining the group for now, and decided to watch from afar, and use the site and other followers’ blogs as instruction and inspiration.
The wonderful thing about Reinhart’s recipes, or formula as he calls them, is that they usually take about two days to make a bread. Those who crave instant gratification might cringe at the idea of spreading the already-tedious process into multiple days but I actually like taking time to create something. I don’t have much patience for things in life but when it comes to cooking and crafts (like knitting), I equate quality and meaningfulness with time spent (that’s why love giving and receiving handmade things).
For this baguette formula, I spent about an hour the night before to prepare something called Pate Fermentee that requires an overnight rest in a refrigerator. This flour, yeast, salt, and water mixture will be mixed into the dough the next day. Reinhart explains that this delay in fermentation produces the best results in bread with richer flavor and amazing texture. It’s something about the sugar. And as we all know, sugar is good.
Here is how I made the Pate Fermantee. It’s very easy and as Reinhart passionately wrote on the book, it really does make a difference. (Note: The photos below may not show you how to do certain steps, such as how to knead the dough. Please use them as reference points when you’re trying to figure out what the dough should look like at each stage.)
1. Measure all purpose and bread flours, salt, and yeast using a scale. Accuracy is important in bread baking as the whole process is very science-based.
2. Mix the dry ingredients and water in a electric mixer with the paddle attachment and mix for about a minute. You can do this by hand also.
3. Once the mixture forms a ball, take it out of the mixture and you’re ready to knead the dough.
4. Knead the dough on a lightly-floured surface for about six minutes. Since I don’t have marble counter or a spacious working space, I used my trusty Silpad I picked up from Sur La Table and used it as my working space. You can do this in an electric mixer but I did with hands because kneading is such a stress reliever! When you’re done, the dough will be “soft and pliable, tacky and not sticky.”
5. Put the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl (I used olive oil), cover, and leave it for about an hour, or until it enlarges to 1-1/2 of the original size.
6. Once the dough enlarges, take it out of the bowl and knead some more (to degas).
7. Put the inflated dough back in the bowl, cover, and put it in the fridge overnight.
Stay tuned for Part II, where I will document the actual baking process! 🙂