For me, baguette is the beginning of my obsession with “good” bread. The artisanal bakery where I worked specialized in making several types of bread with this simple combination of flour, water, yeast, and salt. While I was surprised at the versatility of this dough to make all sorts of loaves and rolls, it was the original baguette that truly captivated me. My first attempts at shaping a piece of dough into something that would qualify as good-looking took a while, but once I got the hang of it I was off and running. Soon enough, I had the technique down and I was able to crank out several per minute, all somewhat uniform in shape and texture.
I first learned of preferments here too. I remember seeing a coworker pouring a watery batter into several buckets and asking him what he was making. “Poolish,” he responded. What the heck? I’d never guessed that aging a portion of the dough could bring so much flavor to the final product. Who knows how long it took for bakers of yore to develop the idea of adding old dough to new to enhance flavor? No idea, but I’m glad that they did.
Now that I’m baking bread at home, I want to recreate what I was baking then, but my ability to roll out a proper baguette has atrophied (which could be brought back up to standard with a little practice, no doubt,) but the bigger issue is the lack of a proper hearth for my oven. My pizza stone is big enough for a loaf, maybe two if they’re small, but to roll out a 17″ long piece and then try to bake it on my current setup would be a disaster. And that’s why there’s such a thing as a boule. This compact loaf features all the flavor and texture of a stick of baguette (well, not as much crust, obviously,) without the trickiness of trying to thrust a few soft 17″ long pieces of dough into your oven using the wrong tools and watching in horror as the ends of the dough fall off your pizza stone and realizing that six hours of waiting and effort are down the drain. I’ll buy a traditional baguette when at a bakery, but I’ll bake boules at home.
The fine folks at WeekendBakery.com have a great recipe for a baguette boule that has an unorthodox method: the dough is created with a preferment that is more like a biga and less like a poolish and is stretched and folded several times after mixing; this develops the gluten enough that you end up with the proper dough structure to deliver the crunchy, chewy crust and irregular crumb that is the hallmark of a good baguette loaf. This is a great method for home bakers who may not have a stand mixer or who cannot or will not knead a piece of dough for 10-12 minutes. As evidenced by the photos, it’s a viable method that I’ll use in the future to make another batch of baguette and feed the sensation that helped me to fall in love with baking in the first place.