Quick, Cheap, Simple French Bread

Homemade bread doesn’t taste anything like what you’re accustomed to buying in the store — Thank God. If you’ve never made bread before, cut yourself some slack — your first loaves may not be picture perfect, but they’ll more than likely be edible. As with anything, the more you practice — and learn from your mistakes and successes — the better you’ll get. If you want to read the article that inspired my publishing this recipe, check out Empowerment: Making Your Own Bread. You can read it while the bread is rising.

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups lukewarm liquid (think: baby bottle safe). I used a mixture of whey and leftover tea, but milk will do, or water; cold coffee will provide an interesting flavor, but please, not pop/soda

1 Tablespoon or packet yeast (I use quick rising)

1/3 cup oil or melted butter (I used olive oil)

1/3 cup sugar or 1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon salt

6-9 cups flour (may be whole wheat or white or a blend of the two; I used 4 cups whole wheat and the rest white; you probably want to avoid 100 percent whole wheat if you’re a novice at this)

2 Tablespoons Dough Enhancer, if desired, and if you’re using whole wheat flour. (It’s not necessary, but if you have a high proportion of whole wheat flour, it tenderizes the final product)

1) Pour the liquid into a large mixing bowl.

2) Sprinkle the yeast atop and let it sit for a minute.

3) Add the oil, honey or sugar, and salt. Whisk with a spoon, whisk, or hand mixer.

4) Mix in three cups of the flour. You can stir the whole time with a spoon or beat with a mixer. I prefer to use a mixer with dough hooks because the longer I beat the dough with the mixer, the less time I have to knead it, by hand, later on. Whether you stir or mix, make sure the flour is completely incorporated and you have a smooth slurry or batter before you add more flour.

5) If you are using Dough Enhancer, this is the time to sprinkle it over the batter and work it smoothly in.

6) Add another cup of flour (this is four in all) — by this time you should have a stiff batter. If you’re using the mixer and the dough hooks, do so for five minutes or so. What you’re doing is developing the gluten, the protein composite found within flour, and doing so will enable the bread to rise more efficiently. You can either hold the mixer still and move the bowl (choose a direction, clockwise or counterclockwise, and stick to it) or move the mixer (again, either direction, but the same one). Gluten develops in strands, and if you maintain the same direction of stirring or mixing, you avoid “breaking” the strands.

7) Depending upon the power of your mixer, add up to another 2 cups of flour, a half-cup at a time, until you have a stiff dough. At any point, if the mixer is straining too much and not blending the mixture well, switch to a wooden spoon. (The amount of flour you ultimately use is variable, depending upon the amount of moisture in the flour itself, as well as in the environmental air around you. I made this batch on a rainy day in June, and ultimately used nearly 8 cups of flour.)

8) By now your mixture should be relatively stiff. Stir in another cup of flour (7 cups in all, by now) until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If you need less flour to achieve this pulling-away-from-the-sides-of-the-bowl thickness, use less. If you need more, sprinkle it in — a quarter cup at a time — until you get there.

9) Sprinkle a half cup of flour over a clean, dry surface on which you can need the bread. Dump the dough from the bowl onto the floured surface.

10) Now it’s time to knead. With floured hands and the dough in front of you in a sort of circular shape, gently grab the top half of the dough and fold it toward you. Push this down with the heel of your hand, and turn the dough a quarter turn (to the right, or left, but be consistent). Repeat the action of folding the dough in half, from the top and toward you, and pushing it down with the heel of your hand. This is the action of kneading, and if you’re absolutely whacked as to how to do it, please follow the link or Google “How to knead bread dough” to find a video or photo reference.

11) Knead for 10-20 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, sprinkling flour on your work surface, a quarter cup at a time, to keep the dough from sticking. (I used an additional 3/4 during my kneading process). Because this is French bread, which rises without a mold, it needs to be a bit stiffer than if I were making rolls — I kneaded until the bread didn’t stick violently to the surface of the counter when the flour was all used up.

12) You can tell you’ve kneaded enough by rudely poking your finger into the dough — along what you’d like to do to the shoulder of the driver who just turned in front of you and cut you off. If the dough springs back with some degree of energy, it’s ready.

13) Pour 2 Tablespoons of oil into a large bowl, plop the dough on top of it, turn the dough so that both sides are oiled, and cover the dough with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Let sit for 45 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature, until doubled. (If the room temperature is 95 degrees, the dough will double faster than if the temperature is 72 degrees.)

14) Punch the dough, with your fist, to deflate it. Flip it over.

15) Grease two cookie sheets.

16) Cut the dough in half, and shape each half into a long bullet. You can do this freehand, or you can roll each half into a 12 x 20 inch rectangle or so, and roll up tightly, from the widest side, into a cylinder. Pinch the bottom shut, and shape the ends into loose points. Put each bullet onto a cookie sheet. My sheets are sized so that I have to place the loaves diagonally so that they will fit.

17) Cover the loaves, loosely, with a light towel. You can also set the cookie sheets into the unheated oven on a lower rack. Drape a towel over the upper rack.

18) Let the loaves rise for 20-40 minutes, until doubled.

19) 10 minutes before you think the loaves will be doubled, pre-heat the oven to 385 degrees (taking out the dough from the inside of the oven, obviously, if that’s where you put it). Many recipes tell you to bake at 400 to 425 degrees, but in 35 years, I have never encountered an oven in which one can successfully do this. The product generally turns out hard, burnt, and more black than brown. Every oven is different though — and through trial and error, you will learn yours.

20) Slash the loaves with a sharp knife, 1/2 inch deep, diagonally at 2-inch intervals.

21) Bake the bread for 20 minutes, until it is browned on top, and lightly browned on the bottom. If it’s not brown at 20 minutes, cook longer. If you’re nervous that it’s burning, check, quickly, at 17 minutes. Remember, if you used whole wheat flour, that the dough in its raw state is brown already; what you’re looking for is that it is browned — a darker color than when you put it in.

22) Take the bread out. For a softer crust, rub the surface with butter.

23) Let the bread sit 20 minutes for slicing. This is very important, since the bread continues to bake with residual heat, and this step finalizes the interior baking. If you slice too soon, you may wind up with a gooey center.

24) Eat, enjoy, analyze for future improvement, and congratulate yourself for making a product that has fed mankind for centuries.

Leave me a comment if you have any questions or frustrations, and I’ll reply. Because I really don’t live at the computer, I may not reply at the very time you are experiencing frustration, but I will reply.

You did it!

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About This Woman Writes

Carolyn Henderson is the marketing manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art. In addition to her This Woman Writes blog, Carolyn writes a regular art column for FineArtNews, an online newsletter for artists and art collectors.
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9 Responses to Quick, Cheap, Simple French Bread

  1. Pingback: Empowerment: Making Your Own Bread | Middle Aged Plague by Carolyn Henderson

  2. Hi,

    Where’s the paintings of the French bakery? The old couple sharing a loaf of bread and some wine? Where?

    Larry

    • Larry: By “old couple,” woulds’t thou be referencing the Norwegian and Me?

      Someday, when the energetically middleaged Norwegian and his Pole make it to France and sit outside the cafe, the Norwegian will paint the painting you describe. I can hardly wait!

  3. Heidelinde Crislip says:

    Hello Mrs. Henderson,
    I love your writing! I can relate to most of your stories and had quite a few laughs. Thank you for brightening my days.
    I have never made bread, but since I love French Bread I might give this a try. Hope it is as yummy as you made it sound!
    Heidi Crislip

    • Heidi — please call me Carolyn. We’re all friends here.

      Oh, I hope that you do give it a try — there’s NOTHING like fresh, hot bread that you made yourself! Like anything that’s worth doing, there’s a learning curve, and if it doesn’t turn out perfectamente, write me with what went “not quite right” and we’ll figure it out. But why am I being a pessimist? It may be perfect on the first try!

  4. oldswimmer says:

    Another thing we share, Carolyn… but but but I have embarked just in the past two months on a “Paleo/Primal” type of diet (to get myself well) and it eschews starch, and gluten, among other things! This is not a cheerful note for someone who has baked my own bread since around 1960 when I was first enjoying my own kitchen! But I’ll enjoy your fragrant loaves vicariously, believe me! Did you know you can use the same general recipe to make homemade pizza dough? So easy… Not even necessary to let it rise…just roll it out, and put the goodies on. I used to bake them in two stages…the first was just the tomatoey part with all that lovely oregano, and then the cheese and yummy other things to taste for the second baking. YUM. Try cinnamon sugar instead for a quick and yummy Pizza cookie!

    • Susan — I wish you the best in your healing process, and I commiserate with you on the lack of bread. As you observe, this bread recipe (as does many a bread recipe) lends itself well to a pizza dough, or rolls, or cinnamon rolls — just with a little less flour for a softer dough. I so dislike pizza doughs made with biscuit dough! Ditto cinnamon rolls. Just love that real thing.

      Speaking of pizza, a dear and gracious relative shared with me her latest pizza dough find — crushed pork rind snacks with some other stuff. She also is embarking on the paleo/primal diet, and has enjoyed presenting family members with this dish and watching their reaction when she tells them what it is (she waits until they try it first and tell her how good it is). I, unfortunately, did not arrive in time for a slice, but I’d like to try it.

      I like that pizza cookie idea. I like any cookies, actually, which does become a problem.

      A lovely evening to you, my friend.

  5. bettyannq says:

    What a great post! I’ve always loved to make something out of nothing and bread has always been a good start. I agree with you, the first few attempts don’t look pretty, but like anything, practice makes perfect. Thanks for sharing the recipe & the insightful life lessons !

    • Betty Ann — bread is indeed a great place to start. Most of us have the ingredients already, and if we don’t (yeast comes to mind), it’s easily accessible at the smallest grocery. The investment outlay is small, and even if the results don’t look so very good the first or second time, they’re usually more than edible.

      I always feel a connection with people (in my mind, women) from the past, who made this simple food item — with or without yeast — for their families, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, when Christ walked on the earth, when the Egyptians were building the pyramids. It’s an unbroken connection to the past, and yet it’s so humble.

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