Artisan bread making is a labour of love. You do it for the love of the process, of shaping something with your hands and watching it grow, and come to life before your very eyes. You can go buy yourself a handcrafted loaf at a local bakery but crafting a free-form, hand-made yeasted dough with essentially nothing but flour, water, yeast, salt and the warmth of your own hands is a deeply held pleasure I do not want to deprive myself of. In life, I am passionate about finding your own path and refuse to believe there is only one way to do anything and am deeply suspicious of people who claim such nonsense so perhaps understandably, I am a big fan of an almost no-knead technique called the “ten second knead”. It proves you do not need to knead, you just need time. Leave the dough to develop it’s own gluten strands and you will be rewarded with a beautifully textured and well formed bread without the financial lay out for a stand mixer nor the gym membership you’d need to develop your upper arms for hand kneading! You coax and cajole it along the way and get lots of hands on time with the dough which transforms in your hands as if by magic. It is a serene and peaceful activity and I can’t help but feel all that calm transcends the dough and helps produce an even more stunningly beautiful bread than all that aggressive pummelling from traditional kneading.

We’re going to make batards (no I haven’t misspelled a swear word!) which are fatter, shorter versions of the spindly, leggy baguette. For the cell biologists out there, think of the shape of fibroblasts – i.e. fusiform or as they are otherwise described, a cigar shape with pointy ends. This dough may be used to create baguettes and both free form or basket-proved loaves but I love the batard as it offers more bread per slice than a baguette and is excellent for dipping into sauces, soups, runny eggs you name it. Using poolish, or a “pre-ferment of flour”, water and a pinch of yeast gives bags of flavour without the stress and commitment needed for sourdough. It keeps very well for several days and has a moist but open crumb – not quite as cavernous as a ciabatta but much more than a more traditional loaf which is typically proved, shaped and baked in under 2 hours. The whole process will take the best part of a day but I know I am not alone in loving real bread and spending the day pottering in the kitchen. The summer holidays are upon us – grab the kids and have a go. Each time I make a loaf with this recipe, it looks different from the last but that’s part of the charm and it makes them no less delicious to eat. 

To mix things up a little, I’ve filmed myself doing each stage of the recipe as it’s such a tactile, visual process it’s actually quite a challenge to write it down in words clearly enough to encourage you all to try it. It may be scary working with such a wet dough but hopefully, by the end of the three posts (the next two are scheduled for publication on the following two days) you’ll see how wonderful the process is and not be scared to try.  Please let me know what you think of the videos as if they are popular, I’ll start doing more (please do leave me requests in the comments if you wish).  The full recipe is published below the video(s) in each post so you can get cracking now if you really can’t wait! 

Part One – Mixing the Dough

It’s going to go against all your instincts but go with me – all we do at first is mix all the ingredients together at once, to produce what is known as a “shaggy mess”. Make sure all the ingredients are moistened and there is minimal loose, dry flour in the dough, cover it and leave it alone…

The ten second knead method for making bread. Here, I demonstrate the first stage – mixing the poolish with the rest of the ingredients and mix until a “shaggy mess” is achieved.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of how to make French Bread!

French Bread Using Poolish
Yields 2
A flavourful white bread dough which lasts very well with a moist, open texture which can be used to make baguettes, batards and free form loaves alike.
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For the poolish
  1. Pinch of dried yeast
  2. 200g strong bread flour
  3. 200g cold water
For the dough
  1. 400g strong bread flour
  2. 6g sea salt
  3. 2g dried yeast
  4. 200g cold water
To work with the dough
  1. Oil/oil spray to grease with
  2. Extra bread flour and a couple of tbsp of semolina or polenta to dust with
  3. You will also need a clean, smooth cotton tea towel or "couche"
  4. A dough scraper is helpful but a spatula will do
  5. A "lame" (bread scorer), razor blade or small sharp serrated knife to score with
Instructions
  1. Make the poolish by mixing all three ingredients together until a soft dough is formed then cover with cling film and leave for 24 hours in an ambient temperature room.
  2. The next day, put all the dough ingredients into a large bowl and scrape in the poolish which should be well risen, foamy and bubbly (aka nice and active).
  3. Mix with a spatula or dough scraper until you form a "shaggy mess". Cover with cling then leave to rest for 10 minutes.
  4. Now you need to do 4 "ten second kneads" with 10 minutes resting time in between. Check out the videos if you are unfamiliar with the technique. Simply grease your hands lightly then pull out the dough starting at one side and working around, doing ten pulls, returning the dough to the centre each time. It will be very tight the first knead and get looser each time you knead the dough.
  5. When all 4 kneads completed, grease your bowl and dough then cover with cling and leave to rest for 2 hours.
  6. Now comes the shaping. Divide the dough into two. There's no need and if anything, it is undesirable to knock the air out so handle the dough gently. On a lightly floured surface at out to a rough square then fold in opposite sides to the middle. Take one of the now thin ends and roll up to a loose sausage shape, seam side down. Repeat with all dough portions. This is "pre-shaping". Cover with cling and leave to rest for 20 minutes.
  7. Heavily dust your tea towel with flour and sprinkle over the semolina or polenta (it is an excellent insurance against sticking!).
  8. Working with one piece of dough at a time place on a lightly floured surface, seam side up and short side facing you. Refer to the videos for more help here. Take one side of the dough and start folding it in from the end nearest you all the way up to the top, pressing down to seal it in the centre as you go. Spin it 180˚ and repeat on the opposite side - you should have a flat wide sausage shape with a seam in the middle. Now, essentially flop one half of the dough over the other, using the heal of your hand to seal it tightly, pinching with your fingers if needed to ensure it is sealed. The ends will be pointy and the batard shape will be more apparent - gently roll a few times with light pressure from the centre out to the very tips and stop. Pinch to seal any bits which have opened on the seam and transfer onto the floured tea towel, seam side UP. Leave 3-4 inches between the shaped breads and repeat for the remaining portions.
  9. Once all the bread is shaped, sprinkle with more flour then pull the tea towel up between each shaped dough portion and fold the tea towel over gently to cover. Use a second one or the leftover cling film to cover the ends if it is not big enough to cover the shaped breads.
  10. Preheat the oven to 250˚C (which essentially means as hot as it goes in domestic ovens) with the shelf positioned low down in the oven and a tray of water beneath it to create steam. Place a flat oven tray on the shelf to preheat with the oven.
  11. Leave the dough to prove for 60-80 minutes then when ready, uncover the dough and this is where I like to flour a reusable silicone baking sheet dusted with flour and polenta then flip the dough GENTLY on to it, seam side DOWN and transfer on another baking sheet to the one which is smoking hot in the oven by now. STAND BACK when you have steamed your oven when opening the door so not to burn your face and once the bread is in, close the door gently and turn the oven down to 220˚C.
  12. Bake for 30-40 for batards. Transfer to a rack to cool before serving.
Notes
  1. Do watch the videos for each stage before you start - all of this is much easier to see than say!
  2. Working with lightly greased hands and lightly floured worktops is to be encouraged.
  3. At no stage do you "knock the air out" of the dough - work with light hands and a tender touch.
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