Homemade French bread is endlessly delicious and takes any meal up a notch. And in spite of what I've read to the contrary, it freezes well (to use, thaw 1 min. in the microwave, then heat in a 350 oven for about 8 minutes). Which is why I find myself, almost every Tuesday, baking this Big Batch of French Bread. It gives me eight loaves--that's one for baking day snacks, plus seven for the week. Or three dinners where everyone gets as much bread as they want . . .
I've adapted my recipe from Martha Stewart Living, to turn out eight loaves at a time as easily as possible, something for which Martha is not known! As you'll see, the ingredient list is very simple, while the technique, not so much. However, it is *very doable*, even for a beginning baker, and the payoff is immense.
*Schoolhouse Big Batch French Bread*
Start the night before and mix up:
3 1/2 c. flour (I use King Arthur bread flour from the grocery store)
3 pinches of yeast
2 c. cold water
in a very large bowl. Use a strong spoon and mix until it comes together in a shaggy lump. Good enough. Cover well with plastic wrap and leave it in a cool place in the kitchen overnight.
In the morning, mix in:
7 c. flour
2 T. + 1 1/4 t. yeast
2 1/4 c. cold water.
Stir this in with that sturdy spoon until it's pretty mixed. Don't mind the scraps stuck to the edges of the bowl.
Let rest for 20 minutes.
Take it out onto a clean work surface, unfloured, and sprinkle with 2 T. + 1 1/4 t. salt.
Start kneading the dough, and knead until it's smooth and supple and doesn't feel lumpy, dry, or too sticky. It will undergo textural changes--start looking for a feeling of finish around the eight minute mark. It's good for your arms! Gives you curves!
Change to a new, clean bowl that's been sprayed with Pam, and is also large, or wash out your first one and spray it. Plop the dough in, spray some plastic wrap with Pam, and cover nicely. Leave it to rise for 45 minutes. Note that all risings are done in a COOL PLACE.
Lightly flour your clean counter and turn the dough out. Very gently fold it over on itself, then turn it over and do it again. It will be so stylishly floury. Replace in bowl and let rise for 75 minutes.
Gently remove again onto the floured surface and cut it into halves with a sharp knife. Cut each half into quarters. Take each of the eight sections and very lightly shape into a ball. Leave on the counter all parked together, and loosely draped over with the plastic wrap. Let rest for 20 minutes.
Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper (my favorite!), or sprinkle with cornmeal. Shape each dough section into a baguette, trying not to deflate too much. Lay four loaves on each pan, cut diagonal slashes in the top of each loaf with a sharp knife, cover lightly with plastic wrap, still oiled, and let rise for 40 minutes.
At last, preheat the oven to 450. With relief, slide the pans in and bake for about 25 minutes. Go for deep golden-brown, and when they're done, make sure you butter the slice you treat yourself to!