Baguettes (French bread)

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Makes 3 40cm baguettes



To make the poolish, mix the flour and yeast in a medium, deep bowl. Add 200ml room temperature water and stir to a very thick batter. Cover with cling film then chill overnight, after which time the batter will have doubled in size.

The next day, combine the flours, remaining yeast and the salt in a large mixing bowl. Add another 250ml water to the poolish, then pour into the flours and mix to make a very wet, sloppy dough. Let this sit for 20 mins, which helps the dough to come together more quickly as you knead.

After 20 mins, the dough will still be wet – possibly much wetter than you’re used to, but this is important for a delicious loaf. Either knead by hand for 10 mins (see tip on kneading a very wet dough, below), or in a mixer with a dough hook for 5-8 mins, until the dough firms up and becomes smooth and elastic. It will still feel sticky but have shape and spring.

Dust a clean patch of worktop and the dough with a little more flour, then fold the dough inwards on itself to make a ball. It will be dry to touch on the outside, but pleasingly wobbly and alive within. Transfer to a lightly floured large bowl, cover with a clean teatowel and let rise for 1½ hours in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size.

Dust a heavy teatowel or baker’s cloth with plenty of flour, and put it onto onto a large kitchen tray or board. Shape three long, baguette-width ridges in the cloth. Turn the dough onto a floured worktop, then flour the sticky side lightly. Cut into 3 equal pieces using a large knife. Do not knead the dough or ‘knock it back’.

Working one at a time, press each piece of dough into a rough oval about 25cm long and 20cm deep. Fold one of the long sides to the middle and press it down well with your fingers. Fold in the other long edge in the same way, and press well again to make a long strip of dough with a groove down the centre. Now fold the dough over itself lengthways into a sausage, pressing the two sides together well in a tight seam against the worktop. Roll very lightly under your palms to seal and make the ends a little pointy. The loaf will be about 40cm long.

Place the dough seam-side down in your prepared cloth, then repeat. Dust all the loaves with a little flour, cover with a clean teatowel and leave at room temperature for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.

Heat oven to 240C/220C fan/gas 9. Put a roasting tin on a shelf towards the bottom of the oven, plus set a shelf in the top third. Scatter semolina or more flour over one or two large baking trays. Carefully roll or lift the breads onto the trays, leaving space for them to grow. If they stretch or go wonky don’t worry, just pat them back carefully into place.

With a very sharp craft knife or blade, slash the loaves diagonally 5 or 6 times, cutting 1-2cm in. Bake one tray at a time, adding 100ml water to the hot roasting tin and closing the oven door as quickly as you can. Bake for 20 mins or until dark golden, risen and crisp. Cool on racks and enjoy same day, or warmed in a hot oven for a few mins next morning.