These iconic loaves are synonymous with France. A government edict regulates where and with what ingredients they can be made.* Every year, bakers all over the country compete to be named the official supplier of baguettes to the Elysée, the president’s official residence, and France is currently petitioning to have the baguette listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Registry as a national treasure.
So it seems a heavy responsibility to be tasked with making them. Not to mention, it’s Paul Hollywood’s recipe, and this was the technical challenge placed before the bakers in the Great White Tent for bread week.
Baguettes are made with a high water content to produce an open, airy texture, and their crispy exterior is created by utilizing steam in the baking process. In fact, the introduction of the steam oven to France by Viennese baker Andrew Zang in 1839 (who is also credited with introducing Parisians to viennoiserie) is said to have paved the way for the creation of the baguette.
And the origin stories just get more interesting, though not necessarily more trustworthy, from there. Around the middle of the 19th century, one legend has it, Napoleon ordered his bakers to create a bread that his soldiers could carry around — in their trousers! A few decades later, in the late 1800s, another story goes, as the Paris Metro tunnels were being constructed, the workers from different regions in France didn’t always get along. The supervisor in charge of construction, Fulgence Bienvenüe, worried that the knives the men brought in their lunches to cut the thick, round loaves of bread would be used as weapons, so he asked the local bakers to come up with a bread that didn’t require a knife to cut it. To this day, Parisians rarely use knives to cut their baguettes but rather tear them into pieces to eat.
Finally, in 1920, a labor law was passed that restricted bakers’ working hours to 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. This didn’t allow enough time for more traditional loaves to be made, so the boulangers came up with a long, thin loaf — the baguette — which could be baked in a shorter amount of time. It was around that year that the name baguette, meaning “wand, baton or stick,” is first associated with these long, thin loaves.
Since most home bakers don’t have access to steam-injected ovens, the method used in this recipe is to place a large roasting pan in the bottom of the oven while it’s warming up; then, right before popping the bread in the oven, pour boiling water into the pan. Voilà! Instant steam!
A few other helpful hints about this recipe:
- Put the dough in a square container for the first proof. Several of the GBBO bakers questioned why it was necessary. Paul claims it helps in the shaping of the dough. I did find, when I turned the dough out of the container, that I simply had to cut it into fourths and they were already shaped like small loaves.
- Don’t rush the first proof. Leave it for at least an hour to an hour and a half. Several recipes I researched recommended leaving the dough in the refrigerator for up to three days to allow it to ferment, creating a richer flavor.
- Use a couche or linen tablecloth for the second proof. A couche is a heavy piece of linen (or cotton) cloth that helps the baguettes hold their shape as they rise. By creating pleats in between each loaf, the dough is encouraged to rise up instead of out, which would result in flatter baguettes. They are not expensive; I found one at my local JoAnn Fabrics. But you could also use a tablecloth or a couple linen tea towels.
- Don’t dust the loaves with too much flour. Although the recipe says to dust them with flour, the only complaint I got from my daughter, who was one of the first to try my baguettes, was that they were coated in flour. It does tend to hide the sheen that tells you when they’re baked to perfection. Next time…
*The baguette de tradition, by law, must be made fresh, on site, with only four ingredients: flour, leavening, water and salt. Bakeries with a blue and yellow sign indicating they are an “Artisan Boulanger” are the only ones that sell certified baguettes de tradition.
You can find Paul’s recipe here, but I have adapted it for American bakers below.
Paul Hollywood’s Baguettes
(Adapted for American bakers)
- Olive oil, for greasing
- 3 2/3 c. bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1½ t. salt
- 3½ t. fast-action yeast
- 1½ c. cool water
- cornmeal, for dusting
- Lightly oil a 2-quart square plastic container with olive oil. (Using a square tub helps shape the dough.)
- Put flour, salt and yeast into the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with a dough hook (don’t put the salt directly on top of the yeast). Add three-quarters of the water and begin mixing on low. As the dough starts to come together, slowly add the remaining water, then continue to mix on medium speed for about 5 minutes, until you have a glossy, elastic dough.
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for a few more minutes. (If dough is sticky, use a dough scraper to knead the dough.)
- Tip the dough into the prepared tub. Cover and leave for 1-1½ hours or until at least doubled in size.
- Dredge a linen couche (or tablecloth) with flour, and lightly dust the work surface with flour. Carefully tip the dough onto the work surface. Rather than knocking it back, handle it gently so you can keep as much air in the dough as possible. (This helps to create the irregular, airy texture of a really good baguette.)
- Divide the dough into four pieces. Shape each piece into an oblong by flattening the dough out slightly and folding the sides into the middle. Pinch the two sides together, then flip it over so the top is smooth and the pinched seam is on the bottom. Beginning in the middle, roll each loaf against the work surface with your hands, using a back-and-forth motion. Don’t press heavily, but gently use the weight of your hands to roll out the dough to about 12 inches long.
- Lay one baguette along the edge of the linen couche and pleat the fabric up against the edge of the baguette. Place another baguette next to the pleat. Repeat the process until all four baguettes are lined up next to each other with a pleat between each one. Cover the baguettes with a clean tea towel and leave for one hour or until the dough has at least doubled in size and springs back quickly if you touch it lightly with your finger.
- Preheat the oven to 450°F and put a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven to heat up. Dust two baking sheets lightly with cornmeal. When the baguettes are risen, carefully place two on each baking sheet diagonally, about 3-4 inches apart. Slash each one on the diagonal about three or four times, using a razor blade or a very sharp knife.
- Fill the heated roasting tray with hot water to create steam, then put the bread into the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the baguettes are golden-brown and have a slight sheen. Cool on a wire rack.