In Our Kitchen: French Bread with Winter Herbs

A great way to bring a fresh taste to baking in winter (when most fresh fruits are out of season) is using favorites from your herb barrel or window planter.  Our herb barrel moves from the porch to the kitchen in the colder months, bringing the smells of the garden and wonderful flavors indoors.  And, the warm scent of baking bread is nice at any time of year.  It’s fun to get creative with the toppings on these baguettes; here are a few of my favorites.

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IMG_2043 Baguettes with sage and rosemary, red onion and parmesan, and dill

French Bread with Winter Herbs


High-altitude adjustments based on Susan G. Purdy’s
basic baguette recipe in her awesome book, ‘Pie in the Sky

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Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (reduce to 2 1/8 tsp at high altitude)
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (omit at high altitude)
3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour (increase to 4 to 4 1/2 cups at high altitude)

Glaze:
1 large egg white
1 teaspoon water

Toppings:
Fresh dill flowers
Fresh sage leaves
Fresh rosemary sprigs
Sliced red onion and minced red onion
A shave of fresh Parmesan cheese

Instructions:
Combine the 1 1/2 cups water, olive oil, and salt in a small saucepan.  Warm until barely hot to the touch, remove from heat. In a small bowl, combine yeast, your 1/4 cup plain warm water, and sugar.  Stir and set aside till bubbling.  In a separate larger bowl, measure about half the flour and depress a well in the center.  Pour the warmed water/olive oil/salt mixture into the flour and add the yeast/warm water/sugar mixture.  Mix well for 3-4 minutes until dough starts to become elastic.  Continue stirring as you slowly add the rest of the flour, till the dough begins to come together in a slightly gooey, stretchy ball.  Better to add less flour than too much at this stage.

Kneading and rising:
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands, fold the dough toward you, give a quarter turn, and repeat.  Add more flour to your work surface as needed. Knead for about 10 minutes, until dough looks smooth on the surface but still feels soft to sticky on the inside.  Work in a little more flour as needed, but be careful not to make the dough too dry.

Form the dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl with oiled plastic wrap and a tea towel on top of it, in a warm place, for about an hour’s first rise until doubled in size. A cold oven with the heat off is a good place to let dough rise, with a baking pan of very hot water beneath it on the lowest rack. When the rise is completed, you should be able to poke two fingers into the top of the dough and have the indentations remain.

Once the dough has risen, punch it down to remove the air bubbles.  Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead once or twice.  Return to the oiled bowl for the second rise of about 45 minutes. Punch it down to flatten; knead a few times; form into a ball. Divide the ball into thirds with a knife. If you wish to add chopped herbs or minced onions to the interior of your loaves, now is the time (I add a tablespoon of minced onion for one; minced dill for another; and leave the third one plain).

Shaping and topping:
Shape the baguette into loaves by patting each ball of dough into a rough rectangle about 4-5 inches wide and 10 inches long. Working from the short end of the rectangle, rolling each loaf into a log.  Lengthen into a baguette shape by placing your palms flat, next to one another, in the center on top of each roll. Rock your hands gently back and forth, outward toward the ends of the loaves. The shaped baguettes should be about 15 inches long and 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

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Preheat the oven, place the shaped loaves onto greased baking sheets, and cover lightly with oiled plastic wrap. Place loaves in a warm rising location (not the oven, which is now preheating!) for the third and final rise of 20-30 minutes. They will rise about 1/3 to 1/2 their size again; they will not double during this rise.

Use a very sharp knife to make 4 diagonal slashes about 1/8 inch deep in the top of each loaf. Whisk the egg and water together for the glaze. Use a pastry brush to coat the loaves with the glaze, and attach your toppings to each (I use red onion slices and a sprinkle of freshly shaved parmesan on one; dill flowers on the second; and sage leaves and rosemary sprigs on the third).

Baking:
Sea level: preheat to 425, then bake at 400 for 15 minutes, and 350 for 15-20 minutes.  High altitude: preheat to 425, then bake at 400 for 20-22 minutes, and 350 for 20 minutes.

Position a baking pan of very hot water on the bottom rack of the oven while preheating.  Reduce heat as indicated, then bake the bread on the center rack. Also toss ice cubes onto the bottom of the oven 3 or 4 times during baking to create the traditional chewy texture (this does not make the crust crunchier).

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About 10 minutes before the end of baking time, remove the pan of water. If your baguettes seem crisp outside but look too pale, remove from the baking sheets and bake directly on the oven rack about 5 minutes more, watching them carefully to avoid over-baking. Bake until loaves are golden brown, and hollow-sounding when rapped on top.

Remove the loaves from the baking sheet and cool on wire racks.

Eat with a spread of butter, jam, or camembert.

-Kristin

Photos by Kristin Carlson

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