Baking Baguettes: Getting the Skinny


January 07, 1996|By ROB KASPER

Recently I started acting on a New Year's resolution I made three years ago: to bake bread. I tried baguettes. I figured if I was going to go to the trouble of making bread, I wanted to end up with something serious bread eaters would crave. Baguettes, those long, skinny loaves with crisp crusts, fit the bill. They look like the kind of bread baked and eaten by people covered with flour.

My first batch of bread turned out to be squat and very thick. Billy-club baguettes. The second batch was longer, thinner, but just as tough. Baseball-bat baguettes. Both batches had good-looking interiors. But that crust. If I had hit someone with one of these loaves I probably could have been arrested on charges of assault with a baguette.

I called a couple of bakers for help. The first was Charles van Over. It was van Over's baguette recipe I was trying to replicate. He baked bread for fun when he was in Baltimore in the late 1950s and the '60s attending Johns Hopkins University. He baked bread when he was chef and owner of Restaurant du Village in Chester, Conn. When I reached him at his home in Connecticut he was simultaneously baking a loaf of olive bread and working on plans for the springtime opening of a combination restaurant and bakery: La Petite Ferme, in Old Saybrook, Conn.

Rather than use an electric mixer to make bread dough, van Over uses a food processor fitted with steel blades. I had read about his bread-making approach in an article in the New York Times. It said to make homemade bread, all one had to do was carefully measure ingredients, push buttons on the food processor, take the dough's temperature, manipulate it, then wait four to six hours before baking.

That may seem like a long time to wait for bread, but I have found that if something takes a long time to make, it usually tastes a whole lot better than something made in a hurry.

My conversation with van Over revolved around three topics. First, his fond feelings for Baltimore. Second, his bread-baking theory. And third, his tips on how I could soften the close-to-felonious crust of my baguettes.

He recalled that as a student in Baltimore, he baked simple American breads in his apartments in Mount Vernon and Charles Village and roamed the city. He rattled off the list of his former haunts: "Martick's, Sabatino's, Haussner's, Lexington Market."

As for his bread-baking theory, van Over said the notion that you can make good dough with a food processor has "turned the bread world on its ear." With enthusiasm in his voice, he detailed the chemical reactions involved in bread-making.

Basically, van Over's theory is that the quick cutting action of a food processor's steel blades either stretches or selectively shortens the molecular structure of the dough. This, he said, could be why his bread, mixed with steel blades, does not not go stale as quickly as loaves made with other machines. Something like that.

As for how to soften the crust of my brickbat baguettes, he said I should put more steam in the oven. He told me to put a pizza stone or brick in a shallow pan at the bottom of a cold oven, then heat the oven and the brick, and splash water on the hot brick. A steamy oven, he said, makes good crust. The pan on the oven floor is necessary to catch the excess water. "If you don't use the pan, you can warp the bottom of your oven," he warned.

I also called Billy Himmelrich, proprietor of Baltimore's Stone Mill Bakery. Himmelrich patiently listened to my recitation of van Over's recipe and to my baking woes. He was impressed with van Over's recipe, saying it sounded like the work of a man who knew how to bake. While intrigued with van Over's concept of what cutting blades do to bread dough, Himmelrich said he was not going to switch from his bread-making equipment, which he described as a series of forks that aerate the dough. Aerating the dough, Himmelrich believes, helps produce a baguette with good crumb and crust.

Himmelrich had a few suggestions for my future bread-baking efforts. He told me to dip my hands in flour before I touched the bread dough. When your hands are covered with flour, he said, the moisture from your skin does not work its way into dough and change its texture. Finally, he suggested starting the baking process at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and finishing off at 450. "Baking bread," Himmelrich said, "is a constant series of adjustments."

With that in mind, I made a new, two-part resolution. And by next winter I will be baking baguettes that are softer than a baseball bat.

(For copy of bread recipe send self-addressed, stamped envelope to Rob Kasper, The Sun, 501. N. Calvert Street, Baltimore , Md. 21278-0001.)

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