Every once in a while, I get an email from someone asking about how to make Vietnamese-style baguettes – those light, airy, crisp rolls used for making banh mi (the national sandwich of Vietnam) or for mopping a saucy spicy Vietnamese bo kho (beef stew with star anise and lemongrass). My first response is to direct the person to a Vietnamese market or deli, or a Mexican market or deli where they can pick up a bolillo roll, which is very similar in texture and function in that they're used for torta sandwiches. Most Vietnamese people DO NOT bake their own baguette for these simple reasons: (1) it's cheap and more convenient to buy baguette, (2) yeasted dough is hard to master, and (3) home ovens are scarce in Vietnam.
Those points are hard to argue since in Corinne Trang's Authentic Vietnamese Cooking, there's a Saigon baguette recipe in which a 1:1 ratio of rice flour to wheat flour is used. She argues that the rice flour lightens the dough. A number of people have tried that recipe and it hasn't worked for them. I have as well and the results were heavy and not as promised. Given the number of hours involved in baking bread, it's an awful disappointment when things don't succeed.
But people want to bake their own Vietnamese baguette and in all earnest, I rose to the occasion to try to crack the story. What started out as a lark turned out to be a month-long adventure. I've baked about 20 batches of baguettes, using different techniques, flour mixtures, etc. My aim was to find a method that came close to mimicking the Vietnamese baguette. The method had to be easy enough so that people would actually try it out. (Wouldn't you just rather buy baguette if it's just about 99 cents each? I would!) It is actually quite difficult to replicate Viet market or mainstream supermarket quality bad baguette but I persevered until I arrived at bread that's ideal for Vietnamese food.
If you're used to hardcore approaches like those in Peter Reinhart's comprehensive Bread Baker's Apprentice, you don't need my help. If you're new to bread baking, you'll find the information here to be interesting, if not inspiring.
I realized the following during my experiments:
- Skip the fat. Don't add butter, shortening, or chicken fat (as I did) to the dough, or it will result in heavier, doughy bread. It weighs the dough down. In Vietnam, fat is a luxury. Why would they add it to bread? Duh.
- Flour. Just use low-protein unbleached all-purpose flour, like those made by Pillsbury or Gold Medal. King Arthur is fabulous if you want a rustic loaf. What we're shooting for are tender, fluffy results. Blending wheat flour with cake flour or rice flour doesn't do much. The rice flour actually weighs down the dough; I used both Asian and regular health food-store rice flour. Cake flour affected the lightness of the dough marginally; if you were using hard wheat flour like King Arthur, then blending would help. For more on flour, visit: http://www.joyofbaking.com/flour.html
- Yeast. Can be either regular or rapid rise yeast, but I ended up using rapid rise, and bought many reasonably priced 3-packs of SAF at Trader Joe's for 99 cents each.
- Sugar. Feeds the yeast and gets it going. I also like the flavor that the sugar adds to the dough.
- Salt. Regular non-iodized table salt is fine.
- Water. I used tap.
- Pan. Get a baguette loaf pan. If you've ever tried to lift a long and delicate risen baguette and slide it onto a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles in the hot oven, you know it's not easy. I've had plenty of loafs stick and become misshapen. On my second day of baking, I dropped baking on baking sheets or stone. I ran to the local gourmet cookware shop and bought a nonstick baguette pan, which many people swear by for circulating heat properly so that the loaves are crisp all over. It works and you can place the shaped loaf in it, let the dough rise and then put it in the oven.
- Multiple risings. Bread takes time. A good 3 risings yields a good chewy "crumb" (meaty insides of bread).
- Shaping the loaf matters. There's a precise way to spring load the loaf so it bursts open through the slashes in the hot oven.
- Slashing is important. A good sharp knife works fine for slashing. Angle the knife at about 30 degrees for nice slashes. The slashes act like steam vents. When done well, during baking, the bread opens up like a ripped weight lifter's triceps. (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger.) If you become hooked, get a French lame gadget for surgically slashing. I don't see a difference so long as you steel your knife first. A razor blade works too.
- Preheat. Let the oven heat up for a good 30 minutes before baking. This can be done when the shaped loaf is rising for the last time.
- Steam in oven. Moisture is needed to yield a nice crisp crust. A pan of water in the oven worked and spraying a few times added to a nice crust.
- Eat fast. Even when I goofed, the bread tasted great — especially when freshly baked — about 30 minutes out of the oven, or whenever it had cooled sufficiently but was still warm.
- Food processor. It actually works for bread like this. I stumbled across the unusual method by renowned author Jane Smiley in the August 2006 issue of Gourmet. It doesn't get any easier than this. Just use a large-capacity food processor. The bowl of the processor is the perfect environment for dough to rise. You just push the buttons.
How to Make Vietnamese Baguette
This recipe yield nice, tasty baguettes that you'll be proud of. The crumb is soft and chewy but not light and airy like the super cheap ones that quickly go stale. The top crust is light and crisp, while the bottom and sides are just a tad soft. Perfect for making banh mi sandwiches or dipping in bo kho beef stew or a chicken curry. Yes, it takes a good 4 hours but consider it a time and culinary splurge.
Makes two 15-inch loaves, each about 14 ounces
1 (1/4 ounce) package active dry yeast, Fleishman brand preferred, or fast-rise yeast, SAF brand preferred
1/2 plus 1 cup warm water (105-115°F)
3 1/2 cups low-protein, unbleached all-purpose flour, Gold Medal or Pillsbury brand preferred, plus extra for shaping the loaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Special equipment: Large capacity food processor; a double (15-inch long) dark, nonstick French bread pan; a razor blade or very sharp knife; plastic dough scraper; plastic spray bottle.
1. Put the yeast in a small bowl and add the 1/2 cup water. Set aside for 2 to 3 minutes to soften the yeast. (It will look kind of blotchy as the granules break down. It may also get a bit foamy too.)
2. Meanwhile, outfit the food processor with the regular chopping blade to make the dough. Put the flour, salt and sugar into the food processor.
3. Return your attention to the yeast. Use a whisk or spoon to gently combine the yeast and water well. Pour in the 1 cup of water and gently whisk or stir again to combine. With the feed tube removed, start the food processor. Slowly pour the yeast mixture into the flour mixture in processor, blending just until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from side of processor bowl, about 1 minute.
4. Replace the feed tube and let the dough rise until it nearly fills the bowl, about 1 hour. Pulse 1 or 2 times to slightly deflate the dough. Let the dough rise again and deflate. Let the dough rise one more time. You're shooting for 3 risings. As you progress, each one will take less time.
5. Flour your work surface and hands with about 1 tablespoon of flour. Detach the processor bowl from the machine. Holding the bowl upside down above your work surface, turn the very soft and sticky dough out onto your work surface, taking care to notice where the blade is in the blob of dough. (The dough scraper is handy for removing the dough from the walls of the processor bowl.) Remove the blade from the dough. Gently rotate the dough on your work surface so it is lightly covered by flour and does not stick. Use the dough scraper to divide the dough in half, setting one half off to the side. (If it's unwieldy, use the scraper to move it around the work surface, lest the dough stick to your fingers!)
6. To shape each baguette, use lightly floured hands to gently press one half of dough into an 8- by 5-inch rectangle or football shape. It should feel lofty and soft. The dough should naturally stretch lengthwise in one particular direction. Think of that as the grain of the dough. You want to shape the loaf along the grain of the dough to promote a big rise.
Fold the top third down and the bottom third up as if you were folding a very wide and narrow business letter. Gently seal the edges by pressing with your fingers or the palm of your hand. The result should look like a fat log. (If you have a rectangle of sorts, you can repeat the folding and pinch the edges to seal to create a log.) Your aim is to coil the dough so that when it's baking, it will spring and burst open beautifully. Try to keep as much of the air in the dough as possible without breaking the skin.
Turn the log over (seam side down) and start rolling the log back and forth (have your hands flat facing downward) to elongate and stretch it into a 15-inch-long thick rope that's 2 to 2 1/2 inches wide. Try not to stop for long lest the dough sticks to your work surface. The dough should be very soft and easily yield to your motions. Pick up the dough with both hands and place seam side down in the cradle of one of the bread pans. Repeat with the remaining half of dough.
7. Loosely cover the loaves with a dish towel to prevent the dough from drying and inhibiting rising in the oven. Set aside in a warm draft-free place for 30 minutes, or until just shy of double the original size.
8. Meanwhile, put a large roasting pan with 1 inch of hot water in it on bottom of gas oven or on lowest rack of electric oven. Position the oven rack in upper third of oven. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
9. When the loaves have risen enough, they're ready for baking. Fill the spray bottle part way with water. Use a razor or sharp knife to make 4 or 5 shallow diagonal slashes down length of each log. The cuts should run the length of the log, be about 4 inches long each, and ¼ to 1/2 inch deep. Angle the razor or knife at about 30 degrees. Mist the loaves with 4 to 6 sprays of water.
10. Slide the pan into the oven onto the upper 3rd rack and bake for 20 minutes. After baking for 3 minutes, mist the loaves. Repeat the misting after baking for another 3 minutes. Then, let the loaves bake. At the 15-minute mark, you may rotate the pan for even browning. At the 20-minute mark, gently turn (you may have to pry it free just a tad) the loaves bottom side up in the pan to promote even crisping and browning. Bake for about 5 minutes, during which you can even rotate the loaves so that the sides brown and crisp too, or until the loaves are crisp all over. The browning happens quickly at this stage so carefully monitor the loaves to prevent burning.
Transfer each loaf to a rack to cool. The bread is wonderful warm after having cooled for about 30 minutes. They'll remain at their best for about 6 hours after baking and can be reheated in the oven. Store overnight in a thick paper bag. To freeze for up to 2 months, wrap in a double layer of plastic wrap; defrost at room temperature and reheat in a 350F oven for about 10 minutes to refresh and crisp.
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