Country French Bread and Baguettes
There's nothing like fresh loaves of thick, crusty country French bread and crackling baquettes. The yeasty, sweet, encompassing smell is almost as satisfying as the taste that follows.

Yield: 1 lg. loaf or 3 baguettes

2 c. tepid water
1-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast or 1 cake fresh yeast
1/2 tsp. sugar
4-1/2 c. bread flour, plus extra flour for kneading
1-1/2 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. cornmeal

For the main dough:
Put 1/2 c. of water, yeast, and sugar into a large food processor and process enough to mix. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Add flour and salt and begin processing dough. With processor running, pour in remaining 1-1/2 c. water and process 30 seconds.

Turn the dough onto a board with additional flour and knead. After 2-3 minutes of kneading, the dough should be smooth but strong. Put the dough in a large bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap, or a plastic container with a lid, and let rise in a warm place for 3 hours.

When risen, the dough should have doubled in volume. Bring the sides of the dough to the center and knead gently to deflate and make it into a ball.

For the country French bread:
Roll the dough tightly on itself into a ball, then press and mold it into a large oval-shape loaf (~11"x6") with the seam underneath. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick mat. Sprinkle cornmeal on the mat, and place the loaf in the center of the sheet.

Let rise at room temperature for 1-1/2 to 2 hours in a proof box. It is important for bread dough to be left to rise in an area that is fairly warm, draft-free, and moist. To make a proof box, cut the top and side off a cardboard box large enough to accommodate the baking sheet holding your formed loaf. Insert the box into a large plastic garbage bag, and close the bag. Alternatively, turn a large cardboard box or plastic bin upside down over the proofing bread.

Preheat oven to 425°. Sprinkle the loaf with flour from a sieve, and, using a razor blade, make a few slashes to the top. Carefully slide the baking pad onto the hot bread stone and bake for 1 to 1-1/4 hours. During the first 10 minutes of baking, create steam by spraying water into the oven at 3-minute intervals.

When the bread is brown and hollow-sounding, remove it from the oven and let cool 1 hour before slicing.

For the baguettes:
Divide the dough into 3 pieces. Press and extend each piece of dough into a log ~8" long, then pinch the sides together along the entire length of each log to create a seam on one side. Using both hands, roll and extend each dough strip into an 18" baguette. Transfer baguettes to a baking sheet lined with a nonstick mat coated with cornmeal. Roll 1 baguette in the cornmeal and arrange it and other baguettes at equally spaced intervals on the sheet.

Slide the tray into the proof box for 1 hour in a warm kitchen. Remove baguettes and sprinkle two loaves (not the one rolled in cornmeal) with flour from a sieve.

With a razor or a serrated knife, score the surface of the baguettes.

Slide the pad and baguettes onto the hot stone and bake for 30-40 minutes, spraying some water in the oven after 1-2 minutes to create steam. Repeat spraying again 3-4 minutes later. When cooked, the loaves should be brown and crusty. Remove, and cool completely on a rack before slicing.

Recipe courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf, ©2001 Jacques Pépin