Boule, or"ball" in French, is a traditional bread shape. I usually make one or two a week as they are smallish, and we can eat a whole one before it goes stale. If it lasts more than two or three days, it's great for bruschetta or made into crunchy salad croutons.
I use the basic master recipe out of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. That recipe is below, but it can be used for a number of other breads, including naan and pitas. The ingredients are the same but I've made a couple of changes to the method. I originally found the master recipe on the Mother Earth News site, but after trying it once couldn't resist buying the book. So far I've tried their recipes for whole wheat sandwich loaf and the whole grain peasant loaves, both with excellent results. I'll also be applying their method to my own sourdough levain, after my last failure with same.
The boule is crispy outside, creamy and chewy inside, easy, and requires no kneading whatsoever. None. The flavor can be more or less sour, depending on how long you store the dough in the refrigerator. In essence you mix a starter sponge, let it rise, then pop it in the fridge. When you're ready to bake, you grab a handful, form a ball, let it rise, slash the top, and bake it at high temperature with a bit of steam. It doesn't even take five minutes of hands-on time.
Basic Boule Recipe
- 3 cups lukewarm water
- 1.5 Tablespoons granulated yeast
- 1.5 Tablespoons kosher salt
- 6.5 cups all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur organic, measured by scooping the cup into loose flour and leveling the top with a knife)
- baking stone
- parchment paper
Mix the water, yeast and salt in a 5-quart container -- a bowl is fine, a plastic container with a lid is even better. Once the yeast and salt have started to dissolve, add the flour. Mix with a spoon, then, if necessary, with your hands, until all the flour is mixed in. It will be quite wet. Cover loosely and allow to rise on the counter for three hours.
You can see the bubbles through the plastic on the left. The top is also wet and bubbly. If you forget and leave it out for more than three hours it'll be fine. You can actually bake a loaf the same day, but it's easier to work with the dough after it's been refrigerated.
This recipe makes four smallish boules. You can easily halve or double it. According to the cookbook, the dough can stay in the fridge for two weeks, but I've left it in for three. The sponge had worked and soured, and the result was quite tasty.
On baking day, dust the top of the sponge. Grab a grapefruit size handful, pull up, and cut it off with a serated knife. With floured hands, quickly pull the edges around until you've formed a ball. Put the ball on a piece of floured parchment paper and dust the top with flour.
The book says to let the boule sit for forty minutes. It flattens out a bit, and mine, at least, don't look like they rise at all. I let it sit for at least an hour, sometimes more, then preheat the oven to 450 degrees for another twenty minutes. Slash the top of the boule with a serrated knife. I just make a big X. The slashes tell the bread where to rise in the oven, as you can see in the first picture above.
There's a little trick to baking the bread. Before you preheat the oven, move a rack into the middle of the oven. Under that place a broiler or other metal roasting pan (I use a ratty old 13x9 metal baking pan). Place your baking/pizza stone on the middle rack.
The book also says to use a pizza peel -- one of those handled wooden boards the pizzerias use to slide their pizzas into the oven -- covered with cornmeal. I find it's easier to use parchment paper to start with, and lift the whole thing onto the hot baking stone. Makes it easy to retrieve the loaf when it's done, too. Once the loaf is on the baking stone, pour a cup and half of water into the hot metal pan beneath it. Work quickly, to keep as much heat and steam inside the oven as possible.
Bake for 30 minutes. Don't open the oven, or the steam will escape.
Remove the brown and delicious loaf and allow to cool on a rack. Try not to eat all of it at once.