No one has ever called me a great cook. It just isn’t in the realm of things that I’m awesome at. I can boil pasta, follow directions on a recipe, and rarely use a measuring cup (much to the dismay of my detail-driven boyfriend), but beyond that, you can assume that if I’ve invited you over for dinner, I want you to come to my house for a pre-dinner cocktail before we go out to a restaurant. So as far as learning how to bake bread like a Parisian, well, you can pretty much assume it’s in the same realm as learning how to play the accordion, or dancing with Bill Murray in an underground bar: possible, but not likely.
Enter Paris, where I just traveled for the very first time last month (eek!!), alongside my madre, her two friends, and my former Texan roommate and NYC moving partner, the lovely Anna Lea Welch.
How to Bake Bread Like a Parisian
La Cuisine Paris
My mom’s friend Ashlyn, a seeker and finder of all things fresh and funky, suggested we attend a cooking class, and why the hell not. So after a little research, we found the class we wanted to master – French Baguettes and ‘Boulangerie’ – at La Cuisine Paris, located in the heart of the city near Hôtel de Ville. Boom.
All of their classes are taught in English (merci beaucoup), and cover a huge range of culinary skills, from pastries, general baking, tasting tours, technical cooking classes, french market classes and more. But when in Paris, it helps to know how to make a baguette like a boss, so that’s what we opted for. The French take their bread extremely seriously, and that includes the official ‘Baguette Law’ of France. Yes. A law strictly for baguettes. Adopted in 1993, the Décret Pain states that any place that calls itself a ‘boulangerie’ must bake the bread on the same premises they’re sold, each baguette must include only the standard four ingredients, no additives or preservatives, cannot be frozen at any stage, and must be approximately 65cm in length, 5 to 6cm wide, 3 to 4cm tall, and weigh approximately 250g.
Our teacher informed us that the average French person buys a baguette twice a day – once for breakfast or lunch, and once for dinner. They never buy them both at the same time (blasphemy!), because baguettes only have an optimum shelf life of 6 hours before they begin to go stale – which isn’t the worst thing, actually, since the old ones can be made into french toast (or just toast, in their case) the following day. That’s a win win for sir baguette, in case you’re keeping score.
But onto the cooking.
We arrived in the morning, greeted by the friendly front desk staff, and were ushered downstairs to choose our stations at a large rectangular prep table, outfitted with a marker and apron to complete the official cook look-book, and introduced ourselves to the rest of the group as well as our French chef slash teacher extraordinaire, Eric. (Just ask for the handsome, tall, French one. He’s radical.)
French Baguette Recipe & Instructions
Things you’ll need to make a French Baguette: Bread Flour, Water, Salt, Fresh (or Dry) Yeast, Dough Cutter, Food Scale (optional, but I’d most definitely need one), X-Acto knife, Spray Bottle, Cookie Sheet (do they call that a bread sheet in France?), Oven, Counter Space, Willpower, Patience, and a Healthy (or Unhealthy) Love of Bread.
First, mix 75g of bread flour, 75g of water and 2g of fresh yeast in a large bowl. Cover it up with some saran wrap and let it chill at room temperature for a long ass time – somewhere between 3 to 18 hours, depending on factors I can no longer remember (my bad). This is called poolish, and from my understanding, it’s sort of like a pre-ferment process for some of the dough.
After your poolish is ready and bangin’, it’s time for the real work. Start by dumping 175g of bread flour and 4g of salt (for 2 baguettes, because a solo baguette is just a sad, sad thing) onto your sparkly clean counter, and use the bowl to create a hole in the middle. Crumble 10g of fresh yeast (or 5g dry yeast) in the middle, then pour 80g of lukewarm water onto that bad boy, stirring it with your fingers and grabbing small bits of flour to slowly mix and dissolve it.
When it’s reached a nice, gooey consistency, grab that poolish and dump it on in, and mix it till it starts forming the beginnings of a fine lookin’ dough blob. Now the hard part – kneading. You’d think this part is pretty self explanatory, but it’s most definitely not. Basically it’s all in the forearm, and all I can really explain is that the goal is to make the dough begin to stretch out like a baseball (or, you know, a baguette). Youtube it or something if you need help, but you’ll do that for about 15 minutes. Or until your French chef slash teacher extraordinaire comes over and corrects you until you suck less.
When you’ve kneaded something resembling a promising future baguette, leave it covered for 30 minutes to an hour, grab a glass of wine, high five your neighbors and congratulate yourself on making it this far.
Now it’s time to divide that doughy goodness into 4 specifically-calculated portions (I can’t remember the specific portions, le sigh… but they’re not all equal, if that helps you – two big, two little). And just like that, you’ve arrived at shaping time, yo! Fold that mother in half, then half again the other direction, then keep doing that until you feel you’ve shaped that bread like a Parisian would. Then, hold up, wait for it, more shaping – into the final baguette form! Baby steps, y’all. Roll that fool out to the length of your cookie sheet, then when it’s stretched sideways in front of you, take the side closest to you and fold it over 1/3 of the way across, then grab again and fold it over 1/2 way across, then grab once more and fold it over all the way across, then place your baguette fold side-down on the cookie sheet and cover it up.
It’s time for more wine. Wait for your pre-baguette(s) to double in size – about 30 minutes to 2 hours – and when they’re plump as can be, enter step scarification. Grab your kitchen scalpel (aka x-acto knife) and make a few beautiful, sweeping lines across the top. Or, if you’re feeling particularly fancy, grab scissors, make cuts in the bread (not all the way through), fold them alternate ways and sprinkle a mixture of sesame and poppy seeds onto alternating layers. Spritz the top of your baguettes with water, and they’re ready to go into the oven!
Set your oven on the hot-as-hell setting, around 480 degrees Fahrenheit, throw 5 ice cubes in the bottom of the oven, and set your pan of bread on the bottom shelf. Let ’em cook for around 15 minutes, and voila! You’ve just baked yourself some baller baguettes, son.
We also made a different kind of bread, topped with all sorts of yummy shit like bacon, cheese, tomatoes, garlic, olives, onions, and spices, and even made tiny rolls filled with sesame and poppy seeds (I’m sure there’s another name for them, but once again, I am no queen of remembering) with our leftover dough from the baguettes.
I’d like to thank Ashlyn, my classmates and sir French chef slash teacher extraordinaire for having patience and a sense of humor, and I’d like to congratulate myself for successfully semi learning how to bake bread like a Parisian. With my own hands! In the (almost) springtime in Paris! On a beautiful day!
And even if you don’t have a chance to learn how make your own baguette in Paris, throw some 60s French Pop on Spotify, open a bottle of wine, drink it, follow my poor cooking instructions and see what happens. Santé!