Makes four medium bageuttes
Authentic french bread requires a poolish starter. Poolish means Polish in french; ie. 'from Poland', not Mr Sheen or Pledge.
Poolish is a starter made from the same ingredients as the dough, but is left to develop for a long time. Traditionally, poolish is left overnight, but if you are in a hurry you can get away with only leaving it for a few hours.
The poolish is then mixed in with the rest of the ingredients, and mixed to a dough. From this point, the process is very similar to baking ordinary bread. Poolish imparts a unique flavour, and improves the development of the bread dough.
Disperse the yeast in the water by stirring for 20 seconds or so. Use ordinary dried yeast, not the 'easy blend' stuff. Easy Blend isn't really any easier, and it's much more expensive.
Put the flour in a mixing bowl (I use a casserole pot). Add the yeast and water mixture and stir thouroughly. Traditionally, you should stir it only in a clockwise direction, as this is supposed to help develop long gluten strands. Of course, stirring it only anti-clockwise would achieve the same result. The point is to only stir in one direction, but I don't think this is critial.
You want a very slack batter-like mixture. You may need a little extra water (2-3 tablespoons) if the air is dry.
Lumps are nothing to worry about here.
Cover the bowl with cling film and put it in a place out of draughts to develop. Leave overnight, or for a shorter time if you must.
In the morning, the poolish will look very much alive. There will be bubbles on the surface, and the poolish will be much larger in volume. You may see a 'tide-mark' on the side of the bowl indicating that it has collapsed slightly. Ideally you want to catch it at its maximum volume, but don't worry.
Now for the dough mixture.
Disperse the yeast in the water as before. Mix the salt into the flour. You don't need to sift the flour (flour isn't stored in hessian sacks anymore), but fluff it up a bit as you spoon it out.
Add the yeast and water mixture to the poolish. Mix roughly. Now add the salted flour in four stages, mixing thoroughly each time. I use a wooden spoon, but you could use a dough mixer.
Add a tablespoon of flour at a time until the mixture starts to pull away from the bowl. Don't add too much flour; a little too wet is better than too dry.
Turn the dough out onto a well floured surface. Now wash up the bowl. The dough will develop a little as you do this, and you'll want the clean bowl in a moment.
Now for the kneading. If you don't know how to knead, it goes something like this: Fold the dough in half towards you. Flatten the dough a little, turn through 90 degrees and repeat. It's not very easy to explain, so Google for some kneading movies if you want more information.
Knead for 5 minutes or so. You will need to add a fair amount of flour to stop the dough from sticking to the surface or your hands. I probably add another 3 tablespoons of flour whilst kneading.
Now oil the mixing bowl lightly (too much oil will make the crust soft) and put the dough into it. Cover with cling film. Set the kitchen timer for 30 minutes and leave the dough to develop and rise. This part is called the 'long knead' in french (sorry, can't remember the original french expression). After 30 minutes, you should lift the dough out of the bowl, stretch it out, and put it back in (in a heap).
The purpose of the long knead is do stretch out the strings of gluten in the flour, and to further mix the dough. You should repeat the long knead two more times, so the dough gets three long kneads. At this point, the dough will still seem very loose. Don't worry.
Now you wan't to 'knock back' (or degazer the dough. This involves kneading out some of the air. If you were to fully degaz, the bread texture would be very smooth, with many tiny holes. Bread tastes far better if you can achieve a mixture of large and small holes, so leave about half the air in the dough. This is fairly easy, because at this point, the dough will be half air by volume. Simply knead very lightly until the dough is about a three quarters of its risen size, which should be the same as one and a half times its unrisen size (There. I said it was easy).
Divide the dough into four portions, and shape roughly into sausage shapes. Dust all over with a little flour, and cover them with an oiled piece of cling film. Leave to re-rise for 30 minutes.
Roll, stretch and flatten each potion into a long rectangle, fold lengthwise. Repeat the rolling and folding. The purpose is to distribute the texture throughout the loaf. Otherwise, the loaf would tend to be heavy at the bottom, and light at the top.
Roll and stretch each loaf into a long, thin baguette. Place them on a greased baking tray.
Set the oven to 230° C.
After 30 minutes, the loaves should be noticably fatter. Boil a kettle, and put an inch or so of boiling water in the bottom of a deep roasting tin. Put it in the oven on the bottom shelf, or directly on the oven floor (be careful with that!). Shut the over door.
In five munites, the oven should be full of steam, which is essential for a good french style crust. An oven full of steam is also ideal for scalding novice bakers (which can be very nasty indeed). Remember steam burns, steam can be invisible, and if you spill boiling water on yourself; it's going to hurt. Lock the cats up, Send the kids into the garden. You have been warned. When you open the oven door, let the steam disperse before putting your head or hands near it.
Spray the baguettes with water until they are really wet, and slash them three times diagonally. Put them in the oven on the top shelf.
After five minutes, open the oven (careful with that steam!) and spray the baguettes with water again. If they are browning unevenly, turn the baking tray around. Repeat this after another five minutes.
After a further five minutes (that's fifteen minutes since you put them in the oven), take out the roasting tin of water. Be very careful doing this.
After twenty minutes, remove the baguettes, and put them on a wire rack to cool. They will be ready to eat in half an hour.