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How to make Julia Child’s French bread

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When Julia Child and Simone Beck published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume 2 in 1970, it received a tremendous reception. Child was already a television celebrity and the book was widely expected long ahead of its publication.

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And, as detailed in the charming book, Provence, 1970, Child recognized that while no French woman (or man) would bake their own bread because of the boulangeries in every town and nearly on every corner, American families were not as lucky and bakeries that made this excellent bread didn’t yet exist. Today we are a bit luckier, but commercially available “French bread” is a far cry from what Child meant. There are now more boutique bakers making excellent breads, with Wave Hill considered an excellent local example, if you can find it in your store.

Neither Child nor Beck were bakers, of course, and Child spent some weeks taking baking courses and learning how to make French bread and how to explain it Americans. The result was in MTAOFC 2, there is a long and incredibly detailed recipe for French bread, that some critics found, at 24 pages, overwhelming.

Well, the meat of the recipe is actually only 13 pages with many detailed drawings, followed by variations in loaf size and oven types. It’s actually quite simple to follow, and you can make it in a day and easily have it ready for dinner.

We took advantage of several modern features to make the recipe even easier and add them into our version below: the food processor, the pizza stone and peel, lava rocks, and a broad Chinese knife for our dough scraper.

One of the biggest problems in cooking in a home oven is producing the steam that makes such a lovely crust on French bread. In a commercial bakery, they have jets of live steam right in their ovens: something that is difficult to accomplish at home. Child and Beck’s book suggests heating brick to, say 500º F and dropping it carefully (!!) into a pan of water in the bottom of your oven.

We had no intention of picking up a hot brick and carrying it to the oven: it’s just a disaster to be averted. We did, however, find several articles on the web that suggested heating the lava rocks that come for use in a barbecue grill in the oven and then pouring a pitcher of hot water over them just before closing the oven. This worked very well, and is so much safer.

The final dough rise is on a piece of canvas with creases to hold the dough in place. You could use a baker’s couche. We just cut a corner from a clean canvas drop cloth.

One of the reason’s Child and Beck’s recipe is so long, is that she explains ways to make French bread in various forms and shapes. We’re skipping that, and are making the conventional long bâtard loaf. The longer, thinner baguette is just too long for a home oven.

Classic French bread is made from just four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water, and that is what is in Child’s classic recipe, which we describe below, complete with extensive photographs in the accompanying slide show.

Equipment

  • A 4-quart steep sloped mixing bowl
  • A food processor
  • A Chinese knife or a dough scraper
  • A rubber spatula
  • A piece of canvas, about 20” x 28”
  • Two small rolling pins (or 1” dowels), about 1” long, or other long weights to hold the canvas in place.
  • A pizza stone
  • A pizza peel
  • Lava rocks in a square metal pan
  • Corn meal
  • A razor blade or fresh bladed utility knive

Making the bread

Start by finding a tall steep sloped bowl for the dough to rise in. The mixer bowl from a stand mixer works fine. If the sides have too shallow a slope, the dough may not rise as well.

Measure out 10 ½ cups of water and mark the side of the bowl at that height. This is how much the dough will have to rise to triple in bulk. Then empty and dry out the bowl.

  • 3 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 2 ½ tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup warm water (not over 100º F)
  • 1 package dry yeast (or 2 ½ tsp from a jar of yeast)
  • 1 ¼ cups tepid water, (70º to 74º F)
  1. Stir the yeast into the ¼ cup of water and let it dissolve while you measure out the other ingredients.
  2. Put the flour, salt, water and yeast solution in a food processer (use a dough blade if your have one) and mix until smooth.
  3. Dump the flour mixture out onto a floured board and let it rest for 2-3 minutes
  4. Using the dough scraper (we used a Chinese knife) lift the side of the dough, fold it over and then slap the dough down on the surface. Repeat several times until the dough is elastic.
  5. The dough should now be elastic enough to knead. If it is too sticky, knead in a little flour.
  6. To knead, press it forward with the heel of your hand and then flip it over. Repeat for several minute until the dough is elastic and no longer sticky. Let it rest for 3-4 minutes and then knead again for a minute.
  7. Place the dough in the mixing bowl you marked, and cover it with plastic and a towel, and let it rise slowly for about 3 hours. The rising temperature should be no more than 70º. If your kitchen is warmer than that (and ours often is) move the bowl to a cooler room. Slow rising develops the flavor, so you don’t want to rush it.
  8. After about 3 hours, the dough should be about 3 times as high. Remove it from the bowl with a rubber spatula and turn it onto a floured board.
  9. Press the dough into an oval shape and pinch out any gas bubbles, not too roughly.
  10. Fold the front corner to the top, then do the same with the rear corner and the right and left corners to form a sort of round cushion. Return to the bowl and cover as before.
  11. The dough should again rise to a little less than 3x in about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
  12. After the dough has risen, turn it again onto a floured board and cut into 3 equal pieces for the 3 bâtards we will be making.
  13. Fold each piece of down in half, cover and let rest for 5 minutes.
  14. Lay out the canvas, and sprinkle it thoroughly with flour so the dough won’t stick. The dough’s final rise will be on the canvas with creases between the loaves so they don’t touch. The canvas holds the dough in its shape, since the bread it baked without a pan.
  15. Lift one end of the canvas and place one of the rolling pins (or 1” dowels) under it. Leaving room for the first loaf, raise a small crease in the canvas, and then leaving room for the second, raise another crease to separate them. Then pull up a final crease, and brace it with the other dowel (or rolling pin).
  16. By now, the dough has rested enough. For each piece, pat it into an oval and then fold it in half lengthwise. Then seal the edges using your thumbs. Keep the remaining pieces covered with plastic.
  17. Roll the dough up so the seam is on top and flatten it again into an oval.
  18. Make an indentation lengthwise using the edge of your hand and fold the dough over it.
  19. Then roll out the dough into a long cylinder, rolling it under your palms until it is about 16” long. Place the dough in the first crease on the canvas and cover it with plastic.
  20. Repeat with the other two pieces so you have three long cylinders of dough in the three creases. Cover them with plastic and let them rise for 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours.
  21. Place the lava rocks in a metal pan in the bottom shelf of the oven, and put a pizza stone on the upper shelf. Preheat the oven to 450º F, long enough ahead to make sure the stone and lava rocks are thoroughly heated.
  22. When the dough has risen, place a pizza peel sprinkled with cornmeal at the end of the canvas and remove one of the dowels.
  23. Then slowly transfer the first loaf onto the peel using a long piece of cardboard or two large spatulas. Make sure the loaves slide smoothly on the cornmeal on the peel so you can quickly slip them into the oven.
  24. Then, just before baking them, cut several long slashes along the length of each loaf using a razor blade or a fresh blade in a utility knife. They need only go about ½” deep.
  25. When you have all three on the peel, open the oven and slip them onto the hot pizza stone. Then, quickly pour about 12 oz of water onto the lava rocks to make the steam and close the oven right away.
  26. Bake for 25 minutes. The loaves should be browned and the bottoms should sound hollow when tapped.
  27. Let the loaves cool on a rack so they cool on all sides, for about 3 hours. The flavor will continue to develop, so don’t rush into them right away.

While this all sounds like a lot of steps, the overall approach is really quite simple, and you can probably do it from memory by the second time you make these delicious loaves. People will love them!

Elapsed time is about 7 hours, but the actual labor takes only about 30 minutes.

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