I just returned from working for a few months for Doctors Without Borders in northern Uganda. While I was there a nurse from Brittany named Nathalie taught me to make the crustiest, smoothest, Frenchiest bread I’ve ever eaten. The ingredients are basic: just flour, salt, water and yeast -- and if I can make this bread in the West Nile region of East Africa, then you can make it wherever you are.
I’m submitting this recipe exactly as Nathalie taught me to make it. I’m sure there are ways to make it easier and faster (i.e. reduce kneading time, use a mixer, reduce rising times), but I can only vouch for the way I learned to do it. I won’t even convert the flour measurement from kilos to pounds; if you want to make authentic French bread you gotta play by their rules.
Kneading the dough for this recipe is not for the faint of heart or weak of hand. It requires invoking your inner 17th century peasant farmer or finding a grounded teenager who could use a good half hour of intense physical labor. The French call bread dough pâte, which literally translates as “paste,” and when you start kneading you’ll see why.
Whenever you hear the words “serve with crusty bread” you should use this recipe. It’s ideal with soup, for making sandwiches, or just with salted butter. Use it for sopping up the cheese fondue recipes you’re testing from Food52! You can slice up whatever is left from the loaf, allowing it to get slightly stale overnight, and use it for French toast the next morning.
For Christmas dinner in Uganda there was a nationwide natural gas shortage which took our oven out of service, so we modified the recipe and baked small loaves in tin foil in the ashes of a woodfire, like damper from the Outback (thanks to the Australian nurse Rebecca for that idea!). It was absolutely delicious with the foie gras Nathalie brought from home. Enjoy!
—John Ryan Brooks
Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.
Pour the yeast into a small bowl or coffee mug and add a little less than a cup of the warm water. Stir to dissolve the yeast.
With one hand slowly pour the remaining warm water into the flour/salt mixture and mix with the other. Continue to mix and knead until the dough forms a dry ball which is fun to punch.
After you’ve given the yeast orgy 10 minutes to get well underway, add the yeasty water to the dough ball. At this point the dough becomes a slimy lumpy paste which requires at least 30 minutes of continuous kneading, though Nathalie recommended 45 minutes to an hour. I use only one hand to knead the dough (aka massage the paste) at this point because it takes a long time, is very sticky, and if you get interrupted and need to use your hands you will lose quite a bit of dough when you wash them.
When you’re finished kneading, scrape the dough off your hand onto the sticky mass which has just sucked away part of your soul and cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel. Give the dough 3 hours to rise.
Generously flour a clean working surface, and pull the dough out of the bowl onto the counter, scraping the sides. At this point the dough has transformed into a pillowy magical substance which makes you believe the French really know what they’re doing. Press and fold the dough many times until you have kneaded out all the air and form into a ball.
Line a shallow, wide-mouthed bowl or basket with a kitchen towel (use the same one if it's dry) and coat with flour. Place the dough ball inside and wrap loosely with the sides of the towel. Set aside again to rise for 1 to 2 hours.
Pre-heat the oven to 350?F and generously flour a baking pan or cookie sheet. Transfer the dough from the bowl to the cookie sheet simply by lifting the towel and letting the dough slide onto the pan. It will look deflated and pathetic, but that’s ok. With a sharp or serrated knife carve a shallow grid (i.e. tic-tac-toe sign) in the top of the loaf and bake for about an hour. Give it ten minutes or so before slicing but serve while it’s still warm!