This weekend was Easter. That's probably very obvious.
I had my wonderful family over to visit. We ate. We drank. We laughed. We enjoyed the sunshine. We ate some more....and laughed over and over again.
Who was it that said the best conversations happen over the dinner table? I have no clue....but he/she was totally spot on.
I like to start any dinner with simple crostini for appetizers. Crostini are thin rounds or slices of bread topped with different fresh vegetables, meat or cheese and baked until toasty & crisp, and topped with some fantastic extra virgin olive oil.
I made French Baguettes infused with fresh rosemary for my crostini because they are the perfect size and shape for this sort of thing. For appetizers, I topped them with a mixture of tomato, cheddar, red onion, Italian parsley, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and oregano. They were lovely....but have you ever had sweet crostini? It is delicious as well. I like to have this in the morning for breakfast actually. It's clear from the photos that I cut into the bread before my guests arrived. That's totally acceptable though - a good host never serves food she hasn't yet tasted (a great excuse to get the first bite....)
The ingredients in French bread are no different than any other bread.
It's simple: water, yeast, salt and flour. The difference? Waiting. Waiting...and more waiting.
The dough has to rise 3 different times. Yes, THREE. Patience is needed, but putting that aside, it really isn't that much work. If you're working from home, or just having a lazy day, bread is the perfect thing to make. You don't really need to babysit it though, so you can even let it rise while you're off doing some shopping, getting your hair done (or cutting your own like I do), going for a run, doing some P90X, organizing your photos, or catching up with old friends. Bread is fun!
First you dissolve the yeast in warm water (110 degrees F). This temperature is important because it is optimal to promote the yeast's activity. Any higher and you might kill the little guys. Any lower and it might take an hour for them to wake up.
Then you add a bit of the flour to this mixture with some salt and stir it up until it is smooth. This becomes your starter sponge. Let this mixture rest for 2-3 hours and it will get all bubbly and foamy.
Then go ahead and add the rest of the flour to the sponge and knead it until it is soft, supple and smooth - about 7 minutes. Form the soft dough into a ball, place it in an oiled bowl, cover it loosely and let it rise in a warm draft-free place for another couple of hours until it doubles in size.
Gently punch the air out of the risen dough, cover it back up and let it rise for another 2 hours, or until it doubles in size once again. I know....this is a lot of rising but it's necessary. The more work the yeast does, the better your bread will taste because yeasts produce all sorts of great flavour compounds as they grow. Punching down the dough is important - it disperses the air bubbles and redistributes the oxygen so that the yeast can work more efficiently (yeast need oxygen to live and make carbon dioxide just like us) and so that you don't have large gaping holes in your bread.
Divide the twice-risen dough in half and form your baguettes. Now here's the other main difference between baguettes and the rest of the bread world....it's the way the bread is shaped. I pat the dough out into a rectangle and then roll it up like cinnamon rolls. Then I flatten out the roll, fold it in half lengthwise and pinch together the seam so that it is sealed well. Some people simply just roll the dough out into a log, but I think the spiral method gives it an added sort of flakiness that French baguettes are known for. Just be sure to seal the seam properly or it will begin to unroll as it bakes.
Let your little logs rest, lightly covered, for about 45 minutes to rise slightly and then bake them off in a hot oven until they are crisp on the outside and produce a hollow sound from the inside!
Are you still wondering what that red & white stuff is that I spread all over my crostini and ate for breakfast? It's fresh Strawberry Sour Cream. No kidding! It's fan-freakin-tastic and I think you should try this. Just puree about 5 oz of fresh strawberries with 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar. Then mix this with equal parts of full fat (yes, 14%) sour cream and spread it over your toasts. It's creamy, tangy and slightly sweet - I love it! These flavours contrast amazingly against the savoury rosemary in the bread - a beautiful thing.
I hope you all had one heck of a weekend!