Recipe, tips for crusty French bread

Sometimes, for me, baking is like alchemy.

You take a group of ingredients, mix them a certain way and the end result (if nothing goes wrong) is a food you love. I often think it's strange how items like breads, rolls, pizza crusts and cinnamon buns have such similar ingredients, but turn into something so individualized.

I decided this weekend that I wanted to make some crusty French bread, and that I wanted to do it with my mixer.

The first bread recipe in my "Betty Crocker Cookbook, New Edition" is French bread, with plenty of tips on creating a super-crispy crust. I was surprised by how simple the ingredients were. The results were excellent, although this recipe rises for so long, you'll want to plan ahead for making it.

You can refrigerate the dough for up to 24 hours - I could see myself making it in preparation for company or a busy day that called for a crusty loaf of bread.

It's the first bread product I've made with the mixer instead of the bread machine. I was pretty proud of myself. Here's the recipe.

French Bread

The traditional flavor and texture of French bread is developed by making a sponge and by refrigerating the shaped loaves before baking. A sponge is a bread-dough mixture made in the first step with the yeast and some of the flour and water. Spraying the loaves with water and adding a water pan to the oven help make a crunchy crust. For the most delicious French bread, serve it the same day you bake it.

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 package regular active dry yeast (21/4 teaspoons)

1 cup very warm water (120 to 130 degrees)

1 teaspoon salt

11/3 to 12/3 cups bread flour (I didn't have bread flour so I added two tablespoons of vital wheat gluten at this stage. I might try using more next time, as it was a little dense.)

In a large bowl, mix all-purpose flour and yeast. Add warm water. Beat with wire whisk or electric mixer on low speed one minute, scraping the bowl frequently until better is very smooth. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for about one hour or until bubbly.

Stir in salt and enough bread flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough forms. Place dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead five to 10 minutes or until dough is smooth and springy. Dough will be soft. (I just kept it in the mixing bowl, I confess, and kneaded on the mixer's lowest speed with a dough hook.)  Grease large bowl with shortening. Place dough in bowl, turning dough well to greases all sides. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, about one hour to an hour and 15 minutes or until dough has doubled in size. Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.

Grease uninsulated cookie sheet with shortening or cooking spray. Place dough on lightly floured surface, forming it into an oval-shaped mound. Sprinkle top of dough with flour. Press straight down with a straight-edged knife lengthwise to divide it into two equal parts. The parts will be elongated in shape. Gently shape each part into a narrow loaf, about 16 inches long, stretching the top of the loaf slightly to make it smooth. Place loves, smooth sides up, about 4 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

Cover loaves loosely but airtight, with plastice wrap. Loaves will expand slightly in the refrigerator. Refrigerate at least 4 hours but no longer than 24 hours. This step can be omitted but refrigerating develops the flavor and texture of the bread. if omitted, continue with the next steps.

Uncover loaves and spray with cool water. Let loaves rise in a warm place about one hour or until they come back to room temperature.

Place 8-inch or 9-inch square pan on bottom rack of oven. Add hot water to pan until about 1/2 inch from the top. Heat oven to 475 degrees.

Carefully cut 1/4-inch-deep slashes diagonally across loaves at 2-inch intervals with a sharp serrated knifed. Spray loaves with cool water. Place loaves in oven and spray again.

Reduce oven termperature to 450 degrees. Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until loaves are deep golden with crisp crust and sound hollow when tapped. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack; cool. (We skipped this part. Warm French bread ... mmm!)

The cookbook's notes on crusty bread:

"Like a crispy crust on your loaf of bread? It's easy - just create moisture in the oven. using a spray bottle with a fine spray, mist the loaf with water a few times during the first 10 minutes of baking. This slows down the formation of the top crust so the loaf will rise higher as it bakes and form a crisp crust. Or add moisture by placing a metal pan with hot water in the oven underneath the bread. As the water evaporates, it dries the surface of the bread, forming a crisp crust."

Photo from this Flickr page.

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