What I Learned in France Part 4: Table Etiquette and My Favorite French Bread

For Part 4 of What I Learned in France, I'm teaming up with Kelley at Wonderfilled. If you guys haven't been over to her site yet, stop reading this and do so immediately. Wonderfilled is a quarterly online look book filled with lifestyle features that explore current culture. In each issue, you will explore food, craft, art, design and style - every that makes cities unique and filled with wonder. The blog and weekly newsletter are full of amazing recipes. I am so excited to be contributing to Kelley's amazing site. I met Kelley, the brains behind the operation, in college. I had been admiring her magazine and site for a while and was thrilled when she asked me to be part of it!

If you haven't been with me during parts 1, 2, and 3 of What I Learned in France, I'll catch you up. I recently had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Provence region of France with my mom. Our trip was planned by Julie at the Provence Post.

If you guys are ever thinking about pursuing your inner Julia Child and heading to Provence, you must contact Julie to help you plan. Julie is originally from the states and moved to St. Remy where she started her business. She is so knowledgeable about the area and was extremely helpful throughout the entire planning process and throughout our entire trip. We even had the pleasure of meeting up over a glass of rose with her while we were there. She is one of those people that you sit down with and feel like you have known her your whole life. It was such a treat to talk with her and I have been living vicariously through her blog since being back home. 

We had the ultimate foodie trip and I haven’t stopped thinking about or talking about it since. We ate, drank, and cooked our way through the Provence region and it forever stole my heart. I learned so much during our trip about food and cooking and have been so inspired in the kitchen ever since. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some new recipes as part of the Daily Wonder. 

One of the things I love most about traveling to different areas is learning the traditions, customs, and etiquette of the area…specifically those involving food. While I enjoy doing some of the touristy things while traveling, those things don’t excite me quite as much as diving into the culture. I like to observe the locals and try to live “a day in the life” of the locals.

We had two amazing guides with us on our trip; one who is from France and one who might as well have been French because he has lived there for so long. During meals I would eagerly observe what they did, how they ate, and how they carried themselves. I tried to mimic everything they did from the way they used my silverware (fork in the right hand, knife in the left, cut your food as you eat and always keep both hands on the table) to the way they engaged in conversation during the meal (never in a hurry and enjoying meaningful conversation the entire time).

One rule of etiquette I was intrigued by is that the French don’t use bread plates unless it’s in a formal setting. Rather than placing your bread on the edge of your plate during a meal, you place it directly on the table to the upper left of your plate. The French enjoy their bread as part of their meal. I thought this custom would be the perfect reason to share my favorite French baguette recipe with you.

I gave bread making my first go earlier this year. I turned to the ever trustworthy America’s Test Kitchen for some guidance and they did not disappoint. Making bread takes some time but it is definitely worth it. The steps are not difficult; it’s the time that usually prevents me from making it on the regular. In the recipe I typed out, I indicated the approximate resting time and prep time for each step to help you with the timing before. Once you have a timeline, the bread comes together easily. When I have some time to spare on a weekend, I dig out this recipe and crank up my oven to enjoy the doughy smell that fills the kitchen. I hope you do the same.

America’s Test Kitchen French Baguettes

Makes 2 loafs

Recipe from Baking Illustrated

Sponge:

1/8 teaspoon instant yeast

¾ cup warm water (about 110 degrees)

6 ounces (1 cup plus 3 tablespoons) lower-protein unbleached all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury (the French use “55 flour”)


Dough:

½ teaspoon instant yeast

½ cup water (at 75 degrees) plus 2 teaspoons water, if needed

10 ounces (2 cups) lower-protein unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt


Glaze (optional, I do not use)

1 large egg white

1 tablespoon water


1.     FOR THE SPONGE (PREP TIME IS 20 MINUTES; REST TIME IS 6-8 HOURS): Combine the yeast, water, and flour in a medium bowl and stir together with a wooden spoon to form a thick batter. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and punch a couple of holes in the plastic wrap with a paring knife; let stand at room temperature. After 4 or 5 hours, the sponge should be almost doubled in size and pitted with tiny bubbles. Let stand at room temperature until the surface shows a slight depression in the center, indicating the drop, 2 to 3 hours longer. The sponge is now ready to use.

2.     FOR THE DOUGH (PREP TIME IS 40 MINUTES; REST TIME IS 2 HOURS; ADDITIONAL PREP TIME AFTER RESTING IS 30 MINUTES): Add the yeast and 6 tablespoons of the water to the sponge. Stir briskly with a wooden spoon until the water is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and continue mixing with a wooden spoon until a scrappy ball forms. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead by hand, adding drops of water if necessary until the dry bits are absorbed into the dough, about 2 minutes. (The dough will feed dry and tough.) Stretch the dough into a rough 8 by 6-inch rectangle, make indentations in the dough with your finger tips, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of water, fold the edges of the dough up toward the center to enclose the water, and pinch the edges to seal. Knead the dough lightly, about 30 seconds. (The dough will feel slippery as some of the water escapes but will become increasingly pliant as the water is absorbed.) Begin “crashing” the dough by flinging it against the work surface several times to help the water be absorbed. Knead and crash the dough alternately until it is soft and supple and the surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes. Stretch the dough again into a rough 8 by 6-inch rectangle and make indentations with your fingertips; sprinkle the dough with the salt and the remaining 1 tablespoon of water. Repeat folding and sealing the edges and crashing and kneading until the dough is once again soft and supple and the surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes. If the dough still feels tough and nonpliant, knead in the additional 2 teaspoons of water.

3.     Determine if the dough is adequately kneaded by stretching the dough. If it tears before it stretches thin, continue kneading for about 5 minutes longer. Gather the dough into a ball, place it in a large lightly oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand for 30 minutes, then remove the dough from the bowl and knead gently to deflate, about 10 seconds; gather into a ball, return to the bowl, and replace the plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.

4.     Decompress the dough by gently pushing a fist in the center of the dough toward the bottom of the bowl; turn the dough onto a work surface. With a dough scraper, divide the dough into two 12-ounce pieces. Working with one piece of dough at a time, covering the second piece with plastic wrap, cup your hands stiffly around the dough and drag it in short half-circular motions toward the edge of the work surface until the dough forms a rough torpedo shape with a taut, rounded surface, about 6 ½ inches long. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Drape the plastic wrap over the dough on the work surface; let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

5.     Meanwhile, cover an inverted rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one piece of dough at a time, keeping the second piece covered in plastic wrap, shape the dough. To do this, working along the length of the dough, press the thumb of one hand against the dough while folding and rolling the upper edge of the dough down with the other hand to enclose the thumb. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times until the upper edge meets the lower edge and creates a deep seam. Using your fingertips, press the seam to seal. At this point the dough will have formed a cylinder about 12 inches long. Roll the dough cylinder seam-side down; gently and evenly roll and stretch the dough until it measure 15 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. Place seam side down on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the second dough piece. Space the shaped dough pieces about 6 inches apart on the baking sheet. Drape a clean dry kitchen towel over the dough and slide the baking sheet into a large clean plastic bag or wrap the baking sheet with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until the dough has risen moderately, 12 to 16 hours.

6.     TO GLAZE AND BAKE (REST TIME IS 1 HOUR; PREP TIME IS 10 MINUTES; COOKING TIME IS 20 MINUTES; ADDITIONAL REST TIME IS 30 MINUTES):  Adjust one oven rack to the lower-middle position and place a baking stone on the rack. Adjust the other rack to the lowest position and place a small empty baking pan on it. Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the baking sheet with the baguettes from the refrigerator and let the baguettes stand covered at room temperature for 45 minutes; remove the plastic and towel to let the surface of the dough dry, then let stand for 15 minutes longer. The dough should have risen to almost double in bulk and feel springy to the touch. Meanwhile, bring 1 cup of water to a simmer in a small saucepan on the stovetop. If using glaze, make the glaze by beating the egg white with 1 tablespoon of water.

7.     With a sharp knife, make five ¼-inch-deep diagonal slashes on each baguette. Brush the baguettes with the egg white glaze, if using, and mist with water. Working quickly, slide the parchment paper with the baguettes off the baking sheet and onto the hot baking stone. Pour the simmering water into the pan on the bottom rack, being careful to avoid the steam. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the loaves front to back and side to side after 10 minutes, until deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaves through the bottom crust reads 205-210 degrees. Transfer to a wire rack; cool 30 minutes. Enjoy!