Perfect Crusty French Bread and a Tribute to Julia Child

We all have a hero, a person we look up to and admire. Someone who we aspire to be, would die to meet. I will never get to meet my icon, Julia Child.

August 15 2012 would have marked her 100th birthday. It seems like just yesterday that I was a little girl, sitting cross-legged in front of the t.v. staring up at the screen in awe as Julia worked alongside master chefs from all over the world on Baking With Julia to produce delicious cakes, breads and pies.

I found this recipe for Julia Child’s french bread on Susan’s gorgeous blog Wild Yeast. The original recipe was printed in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2 but I used the summary on Susan’s blog. I have tried many recipes for french bread but this one is by far the best. Other recipes yield loaves whose crusts are too soft, texture too dry, flavor not quite right… but this one is a winner. Moist, fragrant crumb, crisp crackling crust… french bread heaven.

Julia Child’s French Bread — Recipe Summary (adapted from Wild Yeast)
  • 2 baguettes or batards or boules
Time:  about 7 – 8 hours, not including cooling time
  • mix and knead: 15 minutes
  • first rise: 3 hours
  • second rise: 1.5 – 2 hours
  • divide, rest, and shape: 15 minutes
  • final rise: 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours
  • prepare to bake: 10 minutes
  • bake: 25 minutes
  • cool: 2 – 3 hours
  • one cake (0.6 ounce or 17 grams) fresh yeast or one package active dry yeast  [Susan’s note: Here are some equivalents: fresh yeast: 17 grams; active dry yeast: 0.25 ounce or 7 grams. You could also use 6 grams of instant yeast.]
  • 1/3 cup warm water (not over 100 degrees F) (Angie’s note: If you don’t have a candy thermometer, which I strongly recommend because they’re real nifty, using water that is slightly warmer than lukewarm is fine)
  • 3 1/2 cups (about one pound) all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons salt [Susan’s note: this is about 13.5 grams. I cut my salt down to 10 grams.] (Angie’s note: I used scant 2 tsp)
  • 1 1/4 cups tepid water (70 to 74 degrees F) (About the same temperature as the water for yeast)
  1. Combine the yeast and warm water and let liquefy completely.
  2. Combine the yeast mixture with the flour, the salt, and the remaining water in a mixing bowl.
  3. Turn the dough onto a kneading surface and let rest for 2 – 3 minutes while you wash and dry the bowl.
  4. Knead the dough for 5 – 10 minutes. See the original recipe for details on Julia’s kneading technique [p. 59].
  5. Let the dough rest for 3 – 4 minutes, then knead again for a minute. The surface should be smooth and the dough will be soft and somewhat sticky.
  6. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and let it rise at room temperature (about 70F) until 3 1/2 times its original volume. This will probably take about 3 hours.
  7. Deflate [fold] the dough and return it to the bowl [p. 60].
  8. Let the dough rise at room temperature until not quite tripled in volume, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
  9. Meanwhile, prepare the rising surface: rub flour into canvas or linen towel placed on a baking sheet.
  10. Divide the dough into 3, 6, or 12 pieces depending on the size loaves you wish to make.
  11. Fold each piece of dough in two, cover loosely, and let the pieces relax for 5 minutes [p.62].
  12. Shape the loaves and place them on the prepared towel. See original recipe for detailed instructions [p. 62 or 68].
  13. Cover the loaves loosely and let them rise at room temperature until almost triple in volume, about 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours.
  14. Meanwhile, Preheat oven to 450F. Set up your “simulated baker’s oven” [p. 70] if you will use one.
  15. Using an “unmolding board,” transfer the risen loaves onto a baking sheet [p.65] or peel [p. 72].
  16. Slash the loaves.
  17. Spray the loaves with water and get them into the oven (either on the baking sheet or slide them onto the stone [p. 72]).
  18. Steam with the “steam contraption” [p. 71 and 72] or by spraying three times at 3-minute intervals.
  19. Bake for a total of about 25 minutes.
  20. Cool for 2 – 3 hours.

Step 12 had me really excited – what is being referred to here is what’s known as a baker’s couche. I don’t have one, so I made my own by taking a towel (in the case of this recipe which yields two loaves I used two towels), tying the ends of the towels onto long wooden dowels and suspending them, making a kind of makeshift bread hammock. (Sorry for not taking pictures!) I didn’t have hot bricks or asbestos blocks for the steam component of baking so I sprayed the loaves three times at 3-minute intervals as suggested in the recipe. I actually sprayed it a couple more times during the baking process, rotating the baking sheet midway.

The recipe was long and involved and my entire day was spend on these loaves, but the result was unlike any bread I have ever made before. I would happily do it all over again because what is produced is truly delicious. Real French artisan loaves. What’s not to love?

In the words of Julia Child, Bon Appétit!

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