Baguettes have many faces, many connotations. For a French person I imagine they conjure up school-day memories of crusty clouds encompassing snapping squares of bittersweet chocolate, or long family breakfasts narrated by a cacophony of cracking, tearing sounds and the soothing muffle of butter. As a Brit my associations with baguettes have less romantic origins; I remember well the doughy, par-baked variety served with lashings of margarine and Heinz tomato soup, or sometimes it assumed the identity of frozen garlic bread, infused with a garlic butter so salty, green, and plentiful that the eating was both addictive and unpleasant. For a long time, before the resurgence of the Sourdough, I feel the baguette was regarded as ‘the fancy bread’. It was wheeled out at buffets in baskets as sad, stale little discs and placed on linen tablecloths in upscale bistros for diners to pick at. Real baguettes were for the cobbled streets of French villages and the dark, morning hours in Parisian bakeries. Real baguettes only really lasted in their prime until mid-afternoon.
The dough is as simple as it comes and, after initial mixing, is sticky and pale. The recipe instructed to mix until elastic, even out of the bowl it seemed pretty elastic, but my experience handling dough is limited. I would knead it until instinct told me to stop, until the dough had gained some sort of resistance (personality). It was a thick batter, sticking to the marble worktop and clinging to my fingers in stringy webs. I wanted to hold it as a dome in my hands and for it to resist the urge to sag. The process of kneading produced a heady, yeasty scent and I took delight in the all-consuming combination of physical movement and observation. The dough stretched in damp, soft, strands, very much alive. It changed consistency in my hands, in front of my eyes; chemistry enough to marvel at.
There were defining moments of pleasure making these baguettes, the first being the sensation of the developing dough pulling remnants of ‘batter’ from my hands like PVA glue, and the second when I turned the dough out from its plastic proving container. The bottom of the container revealed a secret ‘ant farm’ view of the yeast’s endeavours; thousands of tiny bubbles punctuating the pale surface, made all the more satisfying as the vacuum was lost and the dough peeled itself onto the worktop with a pleasant, shiver-inducing sound.
My baguettes baked well, forming a crust in a steamy oven, but they were flatter than I’d imagined. Shaping was an issue; the dough did rise beautifully, but more outwards than upwards. Next time I will fashion some sort of crutch to encourage upwards behaviour from the rising dough (no current position for buying fancy contraptions). The recipe called for a stand mixer to knead the dough, I don’t have access to one of these and, with regards to this experience, I’m glad. The pleasure and meditation given to me through the textures, aromas and intimacy of hands-on bread making are undeniable and will always be welcomed.