When English playwright William Congreve penned “Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”, I’m certain he had felt someone’s wrath before. For some people, especially those following a strict low-sodium eating regiment, the taste and scent of French bread is a distant and long forgotten memory. For us, a rather cruel twist of fate inspired our sodium-free French bread recipe — perhaps it might make you laugh a little.
As many of you know, we travel a fair amount; when the option is available, we order low-sodium airplane meals. On a recent trip, Jeff and I were sitting side by side, impressed by the fact that we were eating significantly better food than what was being served up as the regular meal selection. We quietly toasted to our good food fortune: our low-sodium main course surpassed our expectations, it was actually enjoyable. The bread plate was, as usual, unmentionable. Regrettably, the two slices of paper thin bread tasted even sorrier than they looked. In turn, I silently awarded the airline with an “e” for their bread basket effort.
Keep in mind that when you’re seated on a plane, trying to maintain discretion becomes a moot point: the confined space has a habit of sharing secrets. Let’s just say that those of us who were on a restricted diet knew who the others were; we had all looked at each other somewhat smugly when our special meals were served up first. And up until this point on our flight, no event or even this meal would have been remembered… and then it happened.
The irresistible scent of freshly baked French baguettes began to waft down the aisles, permeating the air with anticipation. Signaled by the bread queue, stomachs began to rumble, kicking off the “I’m in your face” fresh bread show down.
Our eyes quickly polled the cabin; the look of desperation was present among all members of the special meal group. We all knew it: the fresh bread scent was taunting us to play on the dark side. Even in the best of circumstances, it takes a lot of self restraint to turn down freshly baked bread. Passing on this particular batch of bread became a statement of sheer willpower.
So yes, I turned down the bread (and nearly crawled off the plane). But the collective look of our comrades’ desperation was haunting. What followed as a result of this experience is our no-sodium French bread recipe. It helps put a happy end on an unusual set of circumstances.
In case you’re wondering, we are tying French bread into our Cajun food history section because of the French “connection” of the (Maritime) Acadians settling in Louisiana after the having been expelled by the British. You can read more about the origins of the Acadians here.
Note regarding making French bread: while the recipe ingredients themselves are fairly simple, there are a number of steps to making bread; the steps of placing the baguettes in the oven while creating steam can be a little difficult to envision and can be a little cumbersome to coordinate the first time.
All I can say is this: it gets a lot easier with a little practice; I think its well worth the effort if your diet doesn’t allow margin for store bought artisan bread. Plus, there is a sense of satisfaction in “beating the system” so to speak.
PS – if you want to get fancy, you can use an egg white wash (which will make the loaf extra “shiny”, but adds a very little amount of sodium) instead of olive oil.
Proof the yeast: in a 2 cup container, add the active dry yeast, warm water, and sugar. Allow the yeast to proof (let it sit for a few minutes). You should start to see a bubbly foam appear on the surface of the water.
In a separate (large) bowl – add the flour and sodium free baking powder. Mix to evenly distribute the baking powder. Add the water/yeast mixture above, and gently mix together. If the dough is too sticky, add flour in small increments and gently knead into the dough; conversely, if there isn’t enough water, add water in small increments. The dough should form a round ball (ideally, it doesn’t stick to the sides of the bowl). Cover with plastic wrap and let sit (rise) for approximately 2 hours. During this time, the dough should roughly double in size.
After roughly 2 hours, “punch down” the dough; the dough should have an elasticity to it. Do not knead the dough too much.
Preheat the oven to 450F. In a cast iron pan, add lava rocks. Place the cast iron pan (containing the lava rocks) onto the bottom rack of the oven and allow the pan to heat with the oven. This will serve as the basis to help create the “steam” (you can skip this step if you have an oven that allows you to inject steam) needed to help create the bread crust.
Dough: divide it into 4 quarters. Carefully roll each section out into a longer baguette (oblong) shape.
Using the side of your hand, create a small indentation along the center (not enough to sever the dough). (This is technique that Julia Child helped to popularize)
Bring the sides up, and pinch the dough together – as shown. The goal is to create a small fold in the dough, which allows the yeast/gas to rise evenly during the baking process.
Sprinkle the cornmeal on the cutting board. Turn the dough so that the “seam” side faces down, and the “seam side down” rests on the cornmeal. (The bottom cornmeal crust helps to create a small barrier between the bread and the baking stone – this helps to mitigate “burning” during baking.)
Using a knife, create 3-4 shallow crosswise cuts on the top of the loaves — evenly spaced across the length of the baguette. This will allow the bread to vent evenly as it bakes.
Here’s the part where the directions get more complicated:
Place the 1 cup of warm water beside the oven. Generally, we avoid using cold water — just in case some spills on the oven door (apparently the temperature difference between the cold water and the hot oven can create cracks in the glass during inadvertent spills, so we avoid creating temperature extremes. Some people use a towel to cover the oven glass, but I think it is easier to use warm water).
The goal is to open up the oven, quickly place the baguettes on the pizza stone (on the next rack above the cast iron pan containing the lava rocks); and then carefully (but quickly) pour the water onto the lava rocks, and shut the oven door — without losing any “steam”.
We think the easiest way to do this is to pour the water onto the lava rocks using an “extension” of sorts (i.e., I used a fish poacher lid, some people pour the water down a long tube/cylinder that ends in the lava rock pan); and then quickly close the oven before all of the steam gets out. During all of this activity, the oven will cool down slightly – and that is fine. The reason why we preheat the oven to 450F is to allow for some heat dissipation during the bread placement/steam creation process. The target oven temperature for baking bread should be 350F.
Be sure to turn down your oven to 350F once the water has created the “steam” and the oven door is closed.
The baguettes will bake for roughly 35-40 minutes (or until golden brown on the top, passes the “prick test”). Roughly half way (20 minutes) into the baking process, open the oven door, quickly slide the bread rack out, and using a pastry brush – lightly brush the olive oil (or egg white wash) onto the top of the baguette. Close the oven and bake for the remainder of the time. The baguettes are done when the top turns golden brown, and it passes the prick test. (note: we used an egg white wash in our bread photo above).
Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 – 10 minutes on a cooling rack. (if you’ve used olive oil to create a glaze, brush on another light coat of olive oil on the baguettes to create a deeper “glaze” effect).