Daring Bakers Challenge: Julia Child's French Bread

When the most recent Daring Bakers challenge was posted, I thought it was a good one. I thought I'd learn from it, but not have too much trouble. Julia Child's French Bread -- how hard could that be? I took a great bread class several years ago, and since then I've baked many yeast breads with few failures. And then I looked at the recipe. All 14 pages of it. And I have to admit, I was a bit intimidated.

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.

Hokayyy ....
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.


Shayne said...

your bread came out beautiful.

RecipeGirl said...

I would have to say that was a pretty tough and intimidating challenge! Looks like you did a great job following the directions and modifying where you needed to. I've just joined the DB group and hope to begin with the March challenge!

Brilynn said...

I think your bread looks great! I didn't quite get the hand position either and just winged it.

Elisabeth said...

Wow! I am impressed - that REALLY sounds like a lot of work. It looks beautiful, though. I like the way the slashes came out on the round loaves - it looks just like the bread I cop out and buy from the bakery, since I'm way to intimidated to try anything like that at home. :)

Astra Libris said...

Thank you so much for the lovely DB welcome!

I think your loaves look beautiful! and oh my goodness, I had such a great laugh over your sausage and ball shaped loaves comment... :-) TOO funny! (I live surrounded by guy humor as well, which might be why I found it so hysterically funny... :-)

Namratha said...

WOW, those loaves look perfectly baked...good job!

Tracy said...

Shayne, thanks!

Lori/recipegirl, Looking forward to you joining the DBers. Good fun!

Brilynn, glad I wasn't the only one about the hand position.

Elisabeth, thanks! To tell you the truth, after doing this twice (the Julia Child and another time to be posted), I'm kind of over French bread. The stuff they sell at Wegmans is good enough for me.

Astra Libris, you get the gold star for careful reading! :-)

Namratha, thanks!

Jaime said...

i followed what they did on the PBS video and threw a few cups of water in the oven to create the steam. great job!

Emiline said...

Um, I've never used a Julia Child recipe, and now I don't think I want to.
Great chef...bad recipe writer?

I would have gotten a kick out of the bread picture, if you HAD arranged it differently. Heh, heh. You would definitely get some attention from the other Daring Bakers.

Jenny said...

Great looking bread Tracy!!! I love the round loaf, it looks beautiful!

Laura said...

I have been making other French bread (and other artisan) recipes on and off (I prefer loaf bread) for a while now and I have yet to master the traditional way to shape the bread. I think it is almost something that you need to be shown in person. But it tastes great so who cares (and boy take a gander at how mine looked--I accidentally left them uncovered at the end so slashing them meant destroying them!)

Laura (ljt2r on CLBB)

Carrie said...

hahaha at "arranging them for presentable blog photos was a bit of a challenge!".
Your bread looks wonderful!
Thanks for the laugh :)

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I guess that's why they call us Daring ;)) Really is strange to think it could take 14 pages to tell you what to do with only 4 ingredients. Still you got beautiful bread.

Big Boys Oven said...

One look at your first picture already make me drooling, so cool, well done!

Beth G. said...

Beautiful job!! Your bread looks absolutely fantastic~

Mia said...

From your pictures I would never have guessed that you had any trouble at all with those loaves. Also, the shaping thing? Yeah - what the heck was with the thumbs thing? I just sealed the edges and prayed for the best.

Mer said...

Your bread looks fantastic. And I'm with you - I didn't quite understand what she was getting at with the hand-shape either. But, we give it our best try, and that's what matters, right? :0)

Anonymous said...

Dangerous Bakers! *tries to hide the giant cut on her finger that appeared out of nowhere today*

The thumb thing was so weird, I tried to figure out how to arrange my hands for that before giving up and pinching it a few times. Yours really looks nice, and it's good to see your long one really rose the occassion.

Allison said...

Oh, I wish you had arranged your bread scandalously... haha I am too bad.
I also had trouble understanding the wordy recipe sometimes... oh well.
But hey, your end results look really awesome!

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Gorgeous looking loaves! Great job here! I love their beautiful crust and airy insides!



Gretchen Noelle said...

Great bread! I agree that the wordy descriptions were a bit confusing. After sort of understanding and sort of using techniques that i already knew, I just pressed forward and found a happy medium. Looks like you did the same. Congratulations!

Ann said...

Amazing-looking bread!

ruthEbabes said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog. Loving yours, you have some great recipes here!

Your bread turned out really well! I'm sure it tasted great! Congrats.

Tarah said...

You breads look beautiful!! And the slashes on them are really great. I actually had a lot of trouble with making the slashes... (Maybe because I have dull knifes? Hmmm... Lol)

And I didn't really get the hand position either, so I just winged it like I usually do :]

Known the less, Your bread looks really good!

hanne hanne said...

I was a little lost in the forming instructions, too. I used the pictures in Peter Reinhart's "Bread Baker's Apprentice" to give me a hand. Your loaves look gorgeous, though.

coco said...

The first thing that struck me about your bread is the wonderful cross slash. It's just too adorable!

breadchick said...

Tracy, despite the winging the directions, your bread looks great

Thanks for baking with Sara and I

marion - il en faut peu pour ... said...

I'm volunteer to taste your bread and tell you if it tastes like the french one, ok ? ;)
congratulations :)

Patsyk said...

Your bread looks wonderful! I enjoyed reading your entire experience with making them. I will be joining you on the March challenge as I just joined the Daring Bakers!

Lori said...

Hello fellow Rochesterian. I just started a blog. I have recently become addicted to checking out all the blogs. There are so many talented people out there.

I loved your bread. I think it looks fantastic. I just sent an email into join Daring Bakers. I can not wait to get started.

Have you ever checked out Lee's Oriental near Lori's? I love that place. They have so much.

Deborah said...

Your bread looks wonderful - you did such a great job.

Sara said...

Nice bread, good slashing!

Lis said...

Yours is a blog that really makes me sad that I don't have much blog reading time anymore.. I absolutely LOVE reading your posts you ALWAYS crack me up and your recipes are divine!

A job well done with the bread and I'm with ya sistah on the shaping shenanigans! Somehow I know there was rocket science involved cuz I just didn't get it. :P

Anyhoo.. now I gotta go read the 2nd part of the bread baking before I move on down the blogroll. :D