This was originally published in the November, 2009, edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier.
Speaking of flour, while bread-baking is a year-round event at my house, Thanksgiving bread-baking starts a few days early when I bake bread for the stuffing. Yes, I’m that fanatic.
When Thanksgiving is over and the turkey has become soup, what’s better than some crusty baguettes to dunk in the hot soup? Taking those baguettes to the next level is the latest device in my baking arsenal, the baker’s couche.
No, this isn’t where I nap while the bread bakes. A baker’s couche is a heavy cloth that’s used for proofing loaves of bread. The dough is laid onto the floured cloth and the fabric is bunched between the loaves to separate them.
The couche supports the dough so it rises up instead of spreading sideways. While a couche isn’t required, it gives bread a more professional result. The perfect test of it was this recipe:
Classic French Bread
Adapted from “Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day”
Reinhart is one of the gurus of bread. This book is aimed at the home cook, with faster, easier techniques than in some of his other books.
5 1/3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix for one minute by hand or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer. Let rest, uncovered, for five minutes.
Knead two minutes by hand or with the dough hook of a stand mixer. The dough should be smooth, supple and tacky, but not sticky. Adjust flour/water as needed.
Knead by hand for another minute on a lightly floured surface, then put the dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or up to four days.
About two hours before baking, remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide dough and shape as desired.
Note: To test the results of the couche, I formed four long thin loaves, and proofed two on a baking sheet and two using the couche.
Mist the top of the dough with spray oil, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 hours.
About 45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 550 degrees. Put an ovenproof pan on the bottom rack of the oven – a cast iron frying pan works well.
About 15 minutes before baking, remove the plastic wrap from the loaves.
Just prior to baking, slash the loaves with a sharp knife. Transfer the loaves to the oven, and pour one cup of hot water into the pan on the bottom rack. Lower the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake 12 minutes, then rotate the bread and bake another 15 to 25 minutes, until done.
Note: If you can’t find unbleached cake flour locally, it’s available at the King Arthur Flour website, http://www.kingarthurflour.com/. Don’t blame me if you get carried away with the amazing array of other flours, including the French and Italian flours and the new organic unbleached bread flour. Yes, it does make a difference. Try a few and see.