Mastering Baguette Food provokes lively, warm, jovial feelings for me; this is especially true during the holidays. Baked goods still sparks my olfactory sense and makes me reminisce of Christmas. When | recall these memories I am at my grandmother’s house as a young child. It starts when the oven door opens, vapors of brown sugar waft through the kitchen and the caramelized, buttery aroma with lingering scents of cinnamon. For me, these memories fill me with joy and always evoke a grin. This feeling are even stronger when I recall, in particular, baguettes.
My interest in bread became irrepressible at the beginning of my cooking career, and developed into a obsessive urge to create perfection the more I focused on it. I started, as many do, working my way up in the kitchen as a line cook. I prepared salads and charcuterie, flipped saute pans, and talked with guests in our open kitchen but always in envy of the pastry chef. Her name was Monica and she was only a few years older than me. She was someone who liked to work alone, but that didn’t keep me from asking her questions.
I started working with her sporadically and she taught me the basics on how to create good bread. She talked fast and did the math so quickly it was overwhelming attempting to comprehend how her ratios came together. She could throw flour with a flick of the wrist and portion out dough in seconds, her hands were methodical when she shaped her loaves and she spoke about bread as if it were alive. Just beginning to grasp the science of bread, I was intimidated by her but also admired her.
After two years and two jobs, I began work at a French estaurant in Boston called L’Espalier, where I took on the title of bread baker. My days started early because I was driving from New Hampshire, I would leave my house around five in the morning to start baking at 7. When I got in to work, I was the only chef in the kitchen and I began to appreciate the serenity of an empty kitchen as it dramatically improved my productivity and concentration. I found myself getting frustrated once the others started coming into work; they broke my concentration and the noise became a distraction.
After my first few days, finally started to understand Monica’s solitary demeanor. My routine started by quickly grabbing all my ingredients along with my scale to set up my station. After my station was prepared | would collect our number of reservations to scale the bread recipes accordingly. We scaled the bread precisely with our numbers, oftentimes multiplying recipes by numbers like 5. 6 or 3. 3. I learned how to do all of this very quickly, because I knew the faster I went in the morning, the longer I had the oven to myself.
Baguettes, were one of the most simply-complex breads to master therefore, they took a lot of trial and error to acquire the precision that was necessary. The recipe consisted of few ingredients and it was simple to develop their flavor profile, but to create a flawless finished product was challenging. The kitchen added difficultly because was not set up for a baker, this was undeniably a savory chef’s kitchen. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the all the equipment necessary for baking on such a large scale, so I had to improvise several techniques.
My baguette dough was consistently producing a great flavor profile and gluten development, but there were three things | needed to perfect, and first was my shaping. My shaping wasn’t terrible, but it still needed some improving. So, I did some homework and watched videos of the masters at King Arthur Flour and read through Tartine several times to learn their baguette shaping techniques. The more I practiced the better I got. Scoring was another problem, the baguettes kept bursting at the seams because we were using a knife to make cuts in the loaves.
Sadly, this resulted in torn or unopened cuts that were not angled properly and looked sloppy. I knew the only way to fix it was to get a lame, which is a small blade similar to a razor that is curved and situated on a handle to create the proper cut. After some time, we finally gained this essential tool and it made a drastic change in their appearance! The last, most important technique was the baking of the baguettes. Its importance is of greatest significance because of all the hard work that preceded it.
If the baking process ruins your loaves, they’re toast… maybe even literally. A proper bake has an efficient amount of steam, this is because it forms a skin on the baguettes as soon as they start to bake. The steam is crucial because it determines what the mouthfeel of the finished loaf will be. Ideally, it would start with a thin and crisp crust that is caramelized and blistered, then it should crack open to a moist, creamy, open crumb. Ideally most bakers, if they had the choice, would chose a brick oven or a steam oven to bake bread.
To my disadvantage, the only oven accessible was a convection oven. To mimic a steam oven with a convection oven, I set small metal trays in the ovens ahead of time to absorb as much heat as possible. When the loaves were ready to go in the oven, I tossed boiling water on the hot trays. But, I only did this at the last second, right before I closed the door to let them bake. Suspense built while I waited for the final results. In seven minutes I could rotate the trays which meant, seven minutes until I found out if I had succeeded… Yes! These baguettes were beautiful!
I was in disbelief that I had created such exquisite looking loaves and nonetheless proud of my kin, they had exceeded my expectations! The score marks were spot on, and created ears that curled the crust back. They were luxuriously golden with a glossy, blistered exterior and the points on either end of the loaves darkened slightly. I quickly pulled a hot baguette off of a tray and sliced through it and it let out an exhale of steam. Oh, the fragrance! Traces of butter, caramel, beer and hazelnut were prominent, and the smell was intoxicating. I inhaled deeply in an effort to memorize the captivating aroma.
The crust has cracked against the pressure of the knife and has shed thousands of fragments from its outer layer that were now lying on the cutting board. I take a bite, the crunch of the crust is deafening, and its toasted flavor is conspicuous. The taste is much richer compared to the crumb, which is moist and creamy and I can feel the resistance of gluten against my jaw. This baguette was enchanting and tempted me to take another bite, I had to taste it again. I was astonished, that I had made these! However, I knew these baguettes had taken me many attempts spanning over weeks, if not months.
My enthrallment with bread kept me wanting to troub troubleshoot, in order to make the best bread I was capable of. I realized these loaves weren’t created from luck, they had passion and hard work baked into them. These baguettes had soul, these baguettes were alive! After that batch of baguettes, my Chef was impressed with my consistency and asked me to share my techniques with my coworkers. I was very happy to pass along what I had accomplished and was overjoyed when I saw them produce equivalent loaves. After I left L’Espalier, I was confident that my hard work would continue to live on in the bread of my colleagues.