Sponge starter yields a go-to French bread

Favorite French Bread. The author says this is her go-to bread; stored properly, it’s a good keeper...
(Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey)
Story by Special to The Washington Post
(Special to The Washington Post)
Mon, Feb 25, 2013
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Montreal baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman says this is her go-to bread; stored properly, it’s a good keeper, and it is ideal for sandwiches or toast.

You’ll need an extra-large plastic zip-top bag, big enough to hold a baking sheet and the bread dough (alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used), and a spray water bottle. Spring water is specified because it isn’t chlorinated and won’t interfere with yeast development.

Store this bread wrapped in a clean dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after that, in a zip-top bag.

MAKE AHEAD: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a first time for 45 to 90 minutes and a second time for 2 to 4 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

FAVORITE FRENCH BREAD

For the sponge starter and dough:

  • 1 cup water, preferably spring water
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour or (preferably) organic white bread flour
  • 2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons organic rye flour

For the dough:

  • 1 cup water, preferably spring water
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (may substitute honey)
  • 1/2 teaspoon malt powder or syrup (optional)
  • 3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour, plus more for dusting

For the sponge starter and dough: Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a thick, pudding-like mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours. The starter should become spongy.

For the dough: Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the sponge starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Quickly stir in the water, yeast, salt, sugar, malt powder, if using, and about half of the bread flour. Mix briefly on low speed to form a soft mass. Cover lightly with a clean dish towel and let stand for 15 minutes. Then continue to knead (using the dough hook attachment) until the dough is smooth and resilient, dusting with as much of the remaining flour as needed. Overall, this is a soft dough, so a bit more slack (vs. firm) is fine.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick cooking oil spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in the large zip-top bag (see headnote), which you will use again later as a proofing tent, or cover with plastic wrap. Seal to close; let the dough rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double in size.

Remove the bag. Gently deflate the dough, forming it into one large ball or two smaller ones. Pull a membrane of dough tautly around the dough ball itself; this layer will help make a nice crust later. Gently place the dough ball(s), seam side down, on the lined baking sheet.

Spray the dough lightly with nonstick cooking oil spray. Insert the stacked baking sheets into the large zip-top bag or cover them with plastic wrap. Seal to close; let the dough rise until it has almost doubled in size, which can take from 2 to 4 hours.

Position a rack in the lowest part of the oven and preheat to 475 degrees.

Remove the baking sheet stack and dough from the bag. Use a sharp knife to slash the loaves just before they are baked. (If dough deflates when you slash it, it may have risen too much. The heat of the oven should help it spring back.) Use the spray bottle to spray the loaves with a mist of water. Dust them with unbleached bread flour.

Open the oven door just long enough to spray a few squirts of water, then place the baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and immediately reduce the temperature to 450 degrees. Spray the oven interior every 5 minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking time. After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 450 degrees and bake for 10 minutes. The bread should be well browned after 35 to 40 minutes, but it won’t yet be fully cooked in the center. Reduce the temperature to 425 degrees for any additional baking time.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool before slicing. Makes 1 large loaf or 2 smaller ones (about 15 slices).

Per slice: 170 calories, 6 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 360 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 0 grams sugar

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