I don't know anyone who doesn't love baguettes (and if you don't, just be quiet about it). Honestly, that crisp crackly crust and meltingly soft insides--especially if you have some nice sharp cheese to go with it...just doesn't get any better than that. Plus there's only four ingredients, and there's something very magical about that. Flour, salt, yeast, and water. Alchemy, I tell you.
I've tried a number of baguette recipes, and this one (my own hodge-podge between Julia Child and Williams-Sonoma Breads) is a winner. You can have fresh baguettes in about 2 hours with a minimum of steps (and let me tell you, it takes all day to make it the way Julia describes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, although she cut it down considerably in subsequent years. Trust me, I've done it all). Although I recommend MTAOFC's description of how to fold and roll the dough (more on that later).
In theory, you should have baguette pans. But if you don't--like me--it works just fine. So I'm giving non-baguette pan instructions, which also means you don't have towels getting floury. Oh, and we're not going to hang them in floured sacks either. Or even use a rolling pin! And I'm assuming you're using an electric stand mixer (like a KitchenAid, and if you don't have one, it's worth the money. And I'm not just saying that because Neil interned there--although he did build ours himself on an intern field trip. Cool, eh?)
And yes, I know this is long, but Julia Child takes like 25 pages to explain it (I'm not exaggerating) so I think you're getting off easy, okay?
Ingredients (for four loaves. Can easily be cut in half)
5-5 1/2 c. flour
2 t. salt
2 1/4 t. quick-rise yeast
2 c. lukewarm water (110 F)
1 egg white beaten with pinch of salt, for glaze
In the mixer bowl, combine four cups of the flour with the salt, yeast, and water. Stir until blended, and allow dough to knead in the mixer for about ten minutes. Add flour as needed so that the end dough is elastic and doesn't stick to the sides, although it will still be soft.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for one minute. Form into a ball, and transfer into a clean (I use Pyrex so it doesn't flavor the dough) bowl. At this stage, I also lightly grease the bowl so the dough doesn't adhere. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled (45-60 minutes).
Turn dough onto a well-floured surface and knead briefly (about 30 seconds). Return to bowl for second rise, 20-30 minutes (until doubled). Cover again with plastic wrap.
Punch dough down and divide into equal parts (4 for the whole recipe, 2 if you halved it). Roll into balls and let rest for five minutes. Grease a nonstick cookie sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal.
On your floured surface, take each ball of dough and flatten it into a rectangle. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Fold into thirds like a letter, and begin rolling the dough into a long rope about 16 inches long. Okay, now here's where Julia Child really comes in! Most cookbooks will just rope the dough at this stage, but I like to work it a bit more to really get some good gluten and bubble action going. In fact, as you flatten the dough you should be hearing teeny bubbles pop. In any case, as I am rolling the dough into a rope, I find that it tends to flatten out. This is good! Simply pinch up the sides, folding it over back into a rope. Continually flattening and then smashing back into a rope incorporates air back into the dough, which is really important for the formation of a light, airy interior. I find that as I am transitioning the dough from the "letter" to the "rope" I fold and smash about 3 times.
Once the dough is in a 16-inch snake, place it on the cookie sheet. Allow to rise for about 20 minutes while you preheat the oven to 450 F. When the oven is preheated, take your sharpest knife and make three 1/4 inch deep diagonal cuts on the top of the bread, allowing the dough to puff out from its gluten cloak as it bakes.
At this point, WS says to put a pan of boiling water on the floor of the preheated oven under the bread. This sounds dangerous to me, since I can imagine myself spilling boiling water everywhere, so I go with a modified Julia Child approach--I put the baguettes in, then quickly throw 1/4 c. of steaming water into the bottom of the oven, then slam the door shut. LEAVE THE DOOR SHUT while the bread bakes for about 20 minutes.
And then enjoy.
I'm going back to the kitchen. There's a baguette waiting for me. And some cheese. And grapes.