But when I read it, I realized a lot of the length had to do with the fact that there were instructions for mixing the dough by hand as well as a stand mixer (thanks very much to hosts Breadchick and Sara for their hard work in preparing the latter). In addition, there were instructions on how to form various shapes of bread. So I forged ahead with an equal mix of nervousness and confidence.
The dough was pretty straighforward. Four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. I did everything in my KitchenAid stand mixer. I have a tendency to add too much flour to sticky bread doughs, and I don't know whether or not I did that. I would have liked it to look a little smoother, but I'm not sure why it wasn't.
The next step, when you cut the dough into three pieces and shape them, is where I started to lose some of my mojo.
I started by making a long loaf, or Batard. This is where I found Julia's writing to be wordy and confusing. This one was especially a doozy:
Being sure that the working surface is always lightly floured so the dough will not stick and tear, which would break the lightly coagulated gluten cloak that is being formed, seal the edges of the dough together, your hands extended, thumbs out at right angles and touching.
I didn't get the hand position. I didn't get why it mattered. But I approximated this step as best as I could, having no idea whether I did it right.
After that, I thought I'd try a shape that seemed easier -- plain old balls -- which Julia more elegantly called Pain de Menage, Miches, and Boules. In the end, it was a mistake to make two balls and one sausage-looking thing -- maybe it was the influence of that ever-present boy humor, but let's just say that arranging them for presentable blog photos was a bit of a challenge!
Anyway, the directions for the balls started with this explanation:
The object here is to force the cloak of coagulated gluten to hold the ball of dough in shape: the first movement will make cushion; the second will seal and round the ball, establishing surface tension.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Lift the left side of the dough with the side of your left hand and bring it down almost to the right side. Scoop up the right side and push it back almost to the left side. Turn the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the movement 8 – 10 times. The movement gradually smooths the bottom of the dough and establishes the necessary surface tension; think of the surface of the dough as if it were a fine sheet of rubber you were stretching in every direction.
I literally could not do this movement -- at least the way I envisioned the movement -- 8 - 10 times. The dough just did not want to cooperate. I finally formed it into a ball my own inelegant way.
At the end of this whole process, it was late and my brain was fried. I took the whole baking sheet, chucked it into the fridge, and decided to deal with it the next day. I have always thought this was ok to do with yeast doughs (the cold temperature slows the rising, but it doesn't kill the yeast). Maybe this wasn't the ideal time in the process to do this. I don't know.
The next day, I took the loaves out of the fridge and let them rise. The dough just didn't want to rise, and I waited hours. At some point, I wasn't sure if they had risen enough, but I decided to put this challenge to bed and pop those babies in the oven.
Julia's technique is to flip the risen loaves over onto a pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal, so that the top that was crusted over is now on the bottom, and the soft, smooth underside is on top. Hah! Easier said then done. Mine deflated a bit.
Then the loaves are slashed on top (not as hard as I anticipated), brushed with water, and slipped onto a preheated baking stone.
This kind of bread requires a steamy oven. Julia's recipe called for
Something that you can heat to sizzling hot on top of the stove and then slide into a pan of water in the oven to make a great burst of steam: a brick, a solid 10lb rock, piece of cast iron or other metal.
This struck me as going beyond the arena of Daring Bakers and into the arena of Dangerous Bakers. I'm curious to see whether any Daring Bakers actually did this (do tell me if anyone did). Wimpy me, I preheated the bottom part of a broiler pan on the lowest shelf of the oven. When I put the dough in the oven to bake, I put a cup of water in the pan, which steamed up a bit.
Having never been to France (boo hoo), I don't know how much this was like real French bread. They looked pretty good, although they could have been a bit taller. The crust was nice and brown.
They also tasted pretty good. The crust was very crunchy -- a little too crunchy for our liking. Inside, the dough didn't have the uneven holes that I think the bread was supposed to have. The flavor was a little salty, which some family members liked and some didn't. We ate the bread during three different meals and didn't have a crumb left, so all in all I'd say this Daring Bakers Challenge was a success.
It didn't really change my opinion of Julia Child, though. I have read plenty of books about her and admire her as a person, but I have always found her recipes to be hard to understand and follow. I own The Way To Cook, one of her later books, and can't say anything I've cooked from it has been a "wow." As a result, I was curious to see how this kind of bread would come out if I followed a recipe without Julia Child's fussy steps and wordy directions. So I found a recipe based on hers in a different cookbook. I'll post the results in a couple of days. In the meantime, here's a link to the full recipe that the Daring Bakers followed.