I love bread. I know there are cautionary tales about why we should be concerned about excessive intake of white flour and carbohydrates. But c’mon, bread is bread. Pretty sacred in my book. There’s a reason why bread is called the staff of life.
While I love a hearty sandwich loaf or challah, I could eat a baguette every day. But quality does not come easily: a good baguette needs time for rising, the temperature of the kitchen during the rise is key, and the oven must be hot and humid.
Massachusetts has two of Bon Appetit’s ten best baguettes in America — Clear Flour in Brookline and PB Boulangerie in Wellfleet. Wellfleet is a wee bit far to travel for bread, but honestly, even Brookline can be haul. So I set out to discover the best baguette available as close as possible to Arlington.
I’ll admit that I was neither scientific nor thorough in my investigation. I chose five baguettes from four independent stores in Winchester, Lexington and Arlington. I ruled out supermarkets and chains stores. The tasters were not a random sampling of people at all, but simply those who live in my house.
But even given all of these weaknesses in my method, the winner emerged clearly. A visual comparison gives shows the wide range of color, crust and crumb amongst the loaves. The prices ranged from $2.25 to $3.79 for a loaf. Most were similar in size, but one was a whopping 20 ounces (my son tried to use it as a baseball bat).
After numerous nibbles, the unanimous winner was ... Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery. I have had Mamadou’s many times before, but the side-by-side comparison confirmed their superiority. The crunch outside was matched by a chewy inside. The bread had a real flavor, compared to some of the others that literally tasted like nothing. Runners up were Nashoba Brook and Iggy’s, both purchased at Wilson Farm. The other two, from Pianedosi and Biga Breads weren’t in the same category as the other three — neither had the characteristic crunchy exterior and yeasty interior I was looking for.
Mamadou’s store is in Winchester, but luckily, they are also at the Arlington Farmers' Market! So you can get a fix every week during market season.
When I can’t get to Mamadou, I do manage to bake a decent crusty boule at home. I am a convert to the no-knead approach to baking bread, pioneered by a New York bakery. The trick is the timing: it needs a long rise, so you have to plan ahead.
My No-Knead Bread
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
¼ t. active dry yeast
1 T. kosher salt
1 ¾ cups lukewarm water
Combine flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Add water and stir briefly until blended—it will be very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and find a warmish spot in your kitchen, like the stovetop. Let dough rise 12-18 hours. By the end of the first rise, there should be bubbles dotting the surface of the dough.
Turn the dough onto a floured work surface. Lightly knead the dough into a loose ball (it’s very sticky at this point so use flour on your hands too). Generously flour a cotton towel and place the dough on it. Dust the dough with flour and cover with another towel. Let it rise a second time for 2 hours.
At 1 ½ hours into the second rise, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a heavy pot with a lid in the oven while it’s preheating (I use a 6 quart thick ceramic casserole dish). Let preheat for ½ hour.
Carefully take the pot out of the oven and remove the lid. Slide your hand under the towel and get dough into the pot as gracefully as possible. It will still look messy. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake another 15 minutes until the loaf is browned. Cool on a rack.