Sunday, January 1, 2012

On the Rise

I've heard it said that whatever you're doing on New Year's Day, you'll be doing all year long. Which means that in 2012, I'll be quite productive (fingers crossed). Even after sleeping in and staying in my pajamas until almost noon, I've also deconstructed and packed away Christmas, made a lovely brunch (I'll tell you about the quiche a little later), and baked an absolutely incredible batch of French bread.

To be fair, I started the bread the day before yesterday. It's Julia Child's recipe, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 2, and it requires a lot of rising. Because I didn't plan perfectly, my dough spent a lot of time in the fridge, rising as slowly as yeast bread can rise, and, maybe not rising enough. At least, the second two rises didn't seem as dramatic as Julia said it would be. But I pressed on, knowing that this was my first batch of French bread ever and as such unlikely to be perfect, and used the first method of steam infusion suggested in the book: a spray bottle (there is also a wet-brick method, but I was unsuccessful in finding a store that sold mason bricks until yesterday, and yesterday, they were closed). And then, after so much recipe reading, care and attention, I burned my loaves.

Not to worry. They may have been dark on the outside, but the crust was thick and crackling, and the bread inside so tasty (and webbed with the characteristic air bubbles French bread is famous for) that it was difficult to believe it was made of only flour, water, yeast and salt. But that's what French bread is. There's actually a law in France forbidding any bread with other ingredients to be called "French." And yet it had more flavor than the "sourdough" I'd been making from my Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook. It wasn't kneaded long at all, but it seemed more glutenous than any of the long-kneaded breads I've produced.

It seems the secret ingredient in French bread (not to discount the many various techniques used in producing it) is time. It needs to sit and rise, not just double, but triple, and not just twice, but thrice. It needs to be left alone. It needs to rest. This seems appropriate, considering it's New Year's Day, a day when many of us lounge after a night's festivities. You see, I used to think that I never wanted to be lazy on New Year's Day, because it would set a lazy tone for the rest of the year. I thought if I slept in and watched cooking shows, if I didn't count my calories or jump immediately into work, there would be some sort of pattern set, as if January 1st might be the most important day of the year. But this year, I let myself rest. I lazed much of the morning away, drinking coffee and watching TV shows. And my rest did its job. It replenished me. And then I wanted to clean up the apartment, cooked and baked and took down Christmas lights. I was better for it. Just like my bread.

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