A Past Edition Of
The New Orleans Menu Daily
By Tom Fitzmorris
New Orleans French Bread (Almost)
The French bread we eat around New Orleans, from the small loaves that come out with the oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's to the long loaves that enclose gravy-saturated roast beef at Mother's, is a unique loaf. There's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Certainly not in France, where the bread may look the same from a distance but has a much denser texture and t thicker crust.
What distinguishes New Orleans French bread is the lightness of both the crust and the interior. A classic New Orleans French bread has large air pockets inside, with tendrils of baked dough stretching across them. And a light, thin crust that's so fragile that it easily shatters into hundreds of little shards when you break it.
I've been told by the old bread bakers that this style of bread can only be gotten by using the special yeasts they employ, along with ovens whose humidity is kept high by pipes spraying a fine mist of water inside at intervals. Whatever creates that texture, I have been unable to duplicate it at home. Nor have I seen any other baker in a restaurant accomplish it.
I haven't given up yet, but I haven't hit the mark yet, either. However, I did manage to make four loaves of what my guests and I thought was a very good French bread for Thanksgiving. It took two days to make it (most of that was spent waiting for it to rise, but aside from paying close attention it wasn't hard. The easy part: only three ingredients!
You do need one odd tool: a clean spray bottle filled with drinkable water.
You can do this in a pile on the countertop, but it's much easier with a big mixer like a Kitchenaid. That's what I base these instructions upon.
2. Fit the whisk attachment on the mixer and turn it on the lowest speed. Slowly add four cups of flour (a quarter-cup at a time), whisking it into the yeast water until blended before adding more flour.
3. Fit the dough hook on the mixer. Sprinkle the salt into the dough and run the mixer about two minutes. Then speed the mixer up to about 3 or 4 and resume adding the flour, continuing at the rate of a quarter-cup at a time, and allowing the flour to blend in thoroughly before adding more. Incorporate all the remaining flour, except for the last quarter-cup. (Reserve that.) Run the mixer until the dough ball cleans the side of the bowl. (You might have to pull the dough off and drop it to the bottom of the bowl if it gets tangled in the hook.)
4. It should take a total of about 25-30 minutes to add all the flour and knead the dough. It should come out smooth and damp but not sticky. Form it into a ball.
5. Grease the sides of a large metal bowl and roll the dough ball around in it to coat the sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the refrigerator overnight. (Or leave it out at room temperature and let it rise for about two hours, then pick up at the next step.)
6. The dough should have about doubled in size. Punch it down, fold it and knead it for about two minutes, then make it into a ball. Return it to the bowl and re-cover with plastic wrap. Put it in a warm place to rise again. If the dough is still cold from the refrigerator, let it rise for two hours. It it's already at room temperature, 50-60 minutes should allow it to double again.
7. Punch the dough down again and put it onto a clean, floured countertop. Divide the dough into four or five balls of equal size. Cover these with the plastic wrap and let them rest for ten or fifteen minutes. While waiting, grease baking sheets (or, if you have them, one baguette pan per loaf).
8. Take a ball of dough and press it down hard with your hand into a rounded rectangle about eight inches long and four inches wide. Fold one of the long edges over to meet the other. Pinch the seam together with thumb and forefinger until it's sealed all the way around, and flatten the dough again, trying to make it longer rather than wider. Fold it over, pinch it closed, and flatten again. Then fold and pinch closed one final time, leaving any air pockets inside be. The loaf should now be about 16 inches long. Take your time doing all this; the dough needs to have these manipulations done slowly, or it will shrink back.
9. As you finish each loaf, place it seam side down on the baking sheet or pan and cover with a damp cloth. If using the baking sheets, leave about three inches between each loaf. Let the loaves rise one final time for about an hour.
10. Fit a shelf in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
11. When the loaves have doubled, cut diagonal scores across the tops of each loaf using a very sharp knife (professional bakers use a razor blade). Put the loaves into the oven and
bake at 450 degrees for about 25-30 minutes. Every five minutes or so, open the oven and spray four or five sprays of water around the oven, above and below the loaves. The loaves are done when the very tops are getting a rather dark brown.
12. Remove the loaves to cooling racks until they're just warm to touch. At this point you can serve them or freeze them, but the bread is actually better if you let them cool completely and then warm them back again.
Makes four or five loaves, enough for 8-12 poor boys or for 20-24 people at dinner.
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© 2008 Tom Fitzmorris. All rights reserved. firstname.lastname@example.org