Monday, December 14, 2009

Crusty French Bread (for Ellen and Greg and Chris)

Yesterday I meant to bake loaves of crusty French bread for communion, like the women in Michael’s consecration prayer, God and her sisters, sharing their power through the miracle of bread. I planned to bake the loaves at church, filling our sacred space with the aroma of fresh bread, setting the table with bread so fresh from the oven it would still be warm.

As is often the case with lovely, deep spiritual intentions, real life barged in. Late Saturday night I realized I had no flour, and had to make a quick Sunday morning trip to the grocery store. Then the perfect, smooth, elastic ball of dough did not rise, not even in a proofing oven.

Somewhat uncharacteristically, I choose not to stress, and decided to trust that the bread I ended up with would be exactly the bread we needed. I cranked the temperature on the proofing oven and let the dough rise some more, but by then I was clear we would not have triple- or even double-rise crusty French loaves.

Julie, as usual, had a brilliant idea. “What you’re really going after is not loaves, but bite-sized pieces of bread and a lovely smell, right? Why don’t you just roll the dough out like a pizza crust, let it rest for ten minutes, and bake it? You can skip the second rise entirely and the church will smell just as nice.”

So that is what I did. And as with most of Julie’s great ideas, it turned out so nicely that I think we will make this our practice for baking our communion bread. (Serendipity, right Michael?)

But still, I promised the secrets to crusty French loaves, so they are:

1. With Brother Juniper (Brother Juniper’s Bread Book is my bible; here is a review), I am a true believer in the triple rise. Mix your dough, put it into a bowl, cover with a damp tea towel, and leave it to rise – in the winter, I set the oven for “proof,” which is 100 degrees. Let rise for an hour and a half, then punch down and repeat. Got that? Two rises in the bowl, for a total of about three hours, plus the mixing and kneading time. Then you make your loaves and let them rise too, for a total of three rises.

2. Mist the loaves with a spray bottle of water right before they go in the oven, and then three more times, every two minutes.

3. White flour. If you want a good crust and you’re devoted to whole wheat bread, use half white and half wheat for your dough. If you want a great crust? All white flour all the time. That’s just how it is.

4. Your crusty French bread will never be as good tomorrow as it is today, so eat up!

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