the boule wears butter

Hooo boy. Here we go.

I think at this point it would be useless to look at the thermometer. Because I’m pretty sure the mercury’s exploded out the top. It’s that hot here. We’d be kidding ourselves if we call this “spring”. It’s more like we’re bang in the middle of summer sweating bullets. That time of year when picnic baskets are whipped out, a bottle of Pimm’s is more dear to you than your brother or sister and you’re glad you installed air-conditioning in the den last year.

After all the bellyaching about being a dabbler, I’m back with a vengeance. A.k.a. boule à l’ail.

Well. Sort of. Because I didn’t really look up a French technique or recipe for this one. Nor did I stuff it with garlic in any way. And there is nothing terribly ground-breaking about making bread at home. But I did it. I baked bread. And it is nothing less than liberating. A feeling of utter independence. I am told that making a bottle of jam or brewing a vat of beer can harvest a similar feeling, apparently. We’ll get there. For now let’s just deal with bread.

Those of you who already have bucketloads of bread-making savvy and already know the feeling I’m talking about – keep mum, will you? Let me have my five minutes of glory and enlightenment.

The boule in question is definitely not the first of its kind. I did have half-a mind to start by making a sourdough starter. I also at one point thought of bounding down to my local bakery to ask for a jar of starter, but then they might have looked at me weird, so that idea went out the window. And after going through a plethora of recipes thrown at me by countless bakers – Julia Child warbled at me with kind eyes, Michael Ruhlmann gave me a lopsided smile from the pages of his book and there was also a lesson from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François – I settled on quantities that were pretty consistent through all the recipes. And what we’re left with is some really good bread, speckled with generous amounts of thyme and parsley and fragrant with garlic. The boule wears butter like second skin and is gorgeous when used to sop up meaty stews or soups.

I love that word ‘sop’. Sop. I’m eating a piece as I’m typing this and I promise you, you’re going to like this. Maybe you already do.

Boule à l’ail

Note about mixing and kneading:

If you’re using a stand/electric mixer with kneading attachment: Mix the ingredients together till the dough comes off the kneading needles easily, slightly elastic and in one piece. If the dough is too sticky keep adding flour little by little till it reaches the correct consistency. Take it out of the bowl and knead vigorously for 5 minutes by hand, over a lightly floured surface.

If you’re doing this by hand: Start mixing with a fork. As soon as the mixture starts clumping around the twines of the fork, scoop it out on a clean well-floured surface and bring it together. Start kneading vigorously and continue kneading for 10-15 minutes. While kneading, press hard with the heel of your palm. If the dough sticks to your palm, sprinkle a little more flour onto the dough. Keep adding flour little by little till the dough is soft but not sticky. When you press it there should be a thumbprint left behind.

For the first boule, I used half the quantities noted below and that’s how big it turned out. I also pulled the boule out of the oven before it browned any further. So if you like a darker crust on your bread keep it in the oven longer. The second boule [made using exact quantities noted below] is in my oven right now. Will let you know how it turns out.

1 cup water
1 tsp fresh yeast
Pinch of granulated sugar
2 cups bread flour + more, as needed
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp dried parsley
1 tsp garlic paste, for brushing
Ghee or olive oil, for brushing
1 tbsp cracked black pepper/ Chopped garlic, to stud on top [optional]

In a glass bowl, microwave the water on full power for 15 seconds or till its warm to the touch. It shouldn’t be hot or steaming and you should be able to plunge a finger into it easily. Add the yeast and sugar an d stir to dissolve. Leave the bowl in a warm but dry place for 10-15 minutes. The surface should be frothy. In a large bowl sift in the flour, salt, thyme and parsley and mix with a fork. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeasty water. Mix and knead as required (see head note).

Pop the dough into a large clean bowl and cover with cling film. Let this bowl rest in a warm and dry place for 1 hour, or till the mass doubles in size. Take it out of the bowl and knead vigorously again for about 5 minutes to knock the air out. Shape into a round ball and place on a lightly greased baking tray. A baking tray lined with parchment will also do. Brush the surface of the dough with ghee or olive oil. Rest for another hour till the dough swells up again.

Pre-heat oven to 200 °C. Brush the surface again with some more ghee/oil. Brush with garlic as well. Slash the surface once or twice with a sharp knife. This helps the dough release hot air and rise. Sprinkle cracked black pepper on top and bake at 200 °C for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180 °C and bake for 25-35 minutes till the top is golden-brown and the bread produces a hollow sound when the bottom is tapped.

Serve slathered generously with butter. Best when dipped in extra-virgin olive oil or with soupy meat stews.