Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Make French Bread

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Wednesday, November 14, 2018

By definition, classic, authentic French bread has only 4 ingredients:
1.) Flour
2.) Salt
3.) Yeast
4.) Water

For some, baking is a mysteriously puzzling process. For others – as with math – it comes easily. Either way, it’s a learned process, can be taught, and the products it produces may be further developed, refined and enjoyed.

At the most basically fundamental level, making bread is the transformation of raw grains into deliciously tasty finished products. An entire language surrounding the baking of bread has arisen, and as our understanding of the art and science of bread-making continues to be developed, new terms may emerge. However, there remain time-tested terms about which many have heard – even if they’re not fully understood – and it is with those most basic terms and processes that French bread is understood, and made.

So in order to understand the how’s and why’s of bread-making, it’s equally important to understand the historical context in which French bread emerged.

Unlike bread in general, French bread’s history is relatively new, per se, and dates to the mid-to-late 1700’s – a revolutionary era in which France and the United States were forming.

Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution gave power to the people who were also subjected to abuse by terror-inducing government actions, including the forced quartering of troops (lodging & feeding) in private residences without either invitation by, or reimbursement to, the owners, and included shortages and rationing of staple food supplies because of many continuous years of harshly inclement climate and weather conditions resulting in crop failures, and other agricultural catastrophes.

Market speculation didn’t help matters, and prices for all foods rose rapidly, precipitously and exponentially, especially and particularly for wheat, and significantly adversely affected the poor and impoverished, who could no longer afford to buy flour. And what flour they were able to afford was of grossly inferior quality and poorly milled, which processing left many bran hulls in the final product.

But the pièce de résistance was mass starvation.

While the few wealthy elites had plenty of money to afford all kinds of food, the majority did not, and were literally starving. Consequentially, crimes of theft, murder, and prostitution were common because people didn’t have enough money to feed their families, and resorted to such activities merely to stay alive.

King Louis XVI and his royal entourage at the royal castle in Versailles were isolated from, oblivious, and indifferent to the escalating crisis of the people’s suffering. And while in response to the appellate courts’ orders to reduce spending, he did so begrudgingly, most of his token attempts to pacify by claiming reform were thwarted by his appointed judges.

During the age of Enlightenment many writers, pamphleteers and publishers informed or inflamed public opinion, and used opposition to the government as a resource to mobilize public opinion in opposition to the monarchy, which in turn tried to repress what became known as “underground” literature. Today, they would be called the “fake news” media.

Complaints of the era included resentment of royal autocratic absolutism; resentment by peasants, laborers and the bourgeoisie towards the traditional privileges wealthy nobility landowners possessed; resentment of the Catholic Church’s influence over public policy and institutions; aspirations for freedom of religion; resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy; aspirations for social, political and economic equality, and especially as the Revolution progressed the idea that the people should hold power, rather than autocratic rulers – aka republicanism; hatred of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was falsely accused of being a spendthrift and an Austrian spy; and anger towards the King for dismissing governmental officials, including finance minister Jacques Necker, who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.

After the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789 – a political prison, fortress, and armory isolated by water during high tides, which at the time held only 7 prisoners, was viewed as a symbol of the corruptly inept government, and their abuses of power – it was a flashpoint in the French Revolution, calm began to be restored. Two days later, the English Ambassador to France John Frederick Sackville, remarked that the French suffered “the loss of very few lives. From this moment we may consider France as a free country, the King a very limited monarch, and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest of the nation.”

And in a symbolic gesture in 1790, Gilbert du Motier, more commonly known as Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocratic military officer who commanded US troops in several battles, including the Siege of Yorktown, and who fought in the French Revolution, gave the heavy, 1-pound cast-iron Bastille key to President George Washington who displayed it prominently at government facilities and events in New York and in Philadelphia until shortly before his retirement in 1797. Even today, the key remains on display at Washington’s Mount Vernon residence.

Once calm was restored, the people’s assembly authorized bakers to make only one kind of bread – “bread of equality” (pain d’ egalite) – made from flour that was ¾ wheat and ¼ rye with the bran included. White flours, long used by the wealthy, were banned, and rationing was introduced. The victory of the republic and the abolition of feudal priviledges later permitted the return of white breads to the table, but the “pain d’egalite” eventually became the everyday bread.

After Napoleon came to power, he determined not to make the same mistakes his predecessors made. His government issued decrees that established standards for French bread, specified ingredients and baking methods, elevated the status of professional bakers, established quality control for flour milling, mixing, and dough kneading, and ended the speculation in grains by farmers and commodity brokers.

Somewhat later, local governments added to those decrees, and specified ways to knead and aerate the dough and established shape and size criteria for any loaf designated an authentic French baguette.

By the 19th Century, technological advancements helped the wheat harvest, bread was much more accessible – especially for farmers who increased their consumption – cooking in communal ovens declined, and bakers were recognized as a separate entity from oven owner/operators.

By the 1920’s bread-making techniques developed in which slow fermentation is 100% guaranteed by yeast, kneading duration is shorter, the shape is elongated, the dough irregularly aerated, and the French baguette was known worldwide.

And so…

Without Further Ado…

Presenting…

An Authentic French Bread Recipe!

Sift together 4cups All Purpose flour, 1Tablespoon salt
Dissolve 1Tablespoon yeast into 2cups warm water

Mix all ingredients well until the mass becomes a ball which easily pulls away from/off the bowl walls

Begin to knead the dough. Kneading activates the gluten protein in the bread, and more fully integrates the yeast throughout the dough.

When the dough is fully kneaded, it should stretch easily without falling apart when pulled.

Set the dough aside in a bowl to ferment for at least an hour, covered with a towel, plastic wrap, pan, or something similar, during which time it will rise, and double in size.

After it has doubled in size, prepare the loaf by folding the dough over on itself several times, then halving the dough ball to make two loaves.

Form the loaves, by rolling the dough back and forth, working evenly across the length of the dough. Tuck in the ends and sides. Score the dough with a knife, which allows the forming CO2 to escape. (CO2 is a by-product of yeast digesting the sugars normally and naturally present in flour, and accounts for the rising action in bread.)

Bake at 350ºF for about 30 minutes. When done, the loaves should have a somewhat “hollow” sound when tapped.

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