Oh, Julia!

Julia Child would have been 100 years old today. “Hooray!” I am delighted to join the Bread Baking Babes and Buddies in celebrating the life and accomplishment of this remarkable woman — a true Babe — with Julia’s Pain Français (French bread).

Oh, Julia, thank you, thank you, thank you for this! Thank you for your dedication and your passion, your curiosity and your ingenuity, without which you would not have brought French bread into the purview of the home baker for the first time.

Published in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two in 1970, Pain Français was a landmark achievement. In her engaging memoir My Life in France, Julia wrote that it was “one of the most difficult, elaborate, frustrating, and satisfying challenges I have ever undertaken.” After she and her husband Paul baked loaf upon trial loaf with less-than-successful results (“they tasted all right, but they weren’t anything like real French bread”), Julia ultimately sought the guidance of renowned French boulangerie expert, Professor Raymond Calvel. He taught her about proper dough consistency (“soft and sticky”), about giving it a long cool fermentation to allow complex flavors to develop, and about good shaping and slashing technique. ”By the end of the day, our loaves were turning out just right, and I was feeling euphoric. It was as though the sun in all his glory had suddenly broken through the shades of gloom!” 

Professor Calvel also showed Julia how professional baking ovens use a hot stone surface and a burst of steam to achieve a wonderfully crisp crust. Back home in Massachusetts, it was up to Julia and Paul to devise a way of replicating these in a home oven. They arrived at asbestos cement tiles as a baking surface, and a hot brick dropped into a pan of water in the oven as a “steam contraption.” (The asbestos tiles were eliminated in favor of quarry tiles in the book’s second printing, after the carcinogenicity of asbestos was discovered.) Never before had these techniques been implemented. Oh, Julia, you were an innovator in so many ways!

I have summarized the recipe for Pain Français below, but you really owe it to yourself to read the original. In her inimitable straightforward but meticulous style, and with copious illustrations, Julia takes 20 pages in Mastering … Volume Two to detail every technique, from mixing (kneading) to fermenting to shaping to baking. She tells us things like why we cannot speed up the process, but how we can slow it down if we need to, and how to tell when the dough has risen sufficiently, and how to transfer the bread to the baking stone, and where we might improve if we didn’t get the results we wanted. She tell us everything. Oh, Julia!

Happy birthday, Julia, and bon appetit!

Julia Child’s French Bread — Recipe Summary
  • 3 baguettes or batards or boules
  • Or 6 short loaves (ficelles)
  • Or 12 rolls (petits pains)
Time:  about 7 – 8 hours, not including cooling time
[Susan's breakdown:
  • mix and knead: 15 minutes
  • first rise: 3 hours
  • second rise: 1.5 - 2 hours
  • divide, rest, and shape: 15 minutes
  • final rise: 1 1/2 - 2 1/2 hours
  • prepare to bake: 10 minutes
  • bake: 25 minutes
  • cool: 2 - 3 hours]
  • one cake (0.6 ounce or 17 grams) fresh yeast or one package active dry yeast  [Susan's note: Here are some equivalents: fresh yeast: 17 grams; active dry yeast: 0.25 ounce or 7 grams. You could also use 6 grams of instant yeast.]
  • 1/3 cup warm water (not over 100 degrees F)
  • 3 1/2 cups (about one pound) all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons salt [Susan's note: this is about 13.5 grams. I cut my salt down to 10 grams.]
  • 1 1/4 cups tepid water (70 to 74 degrees F)
  1. Combine the yeast and warm water and let liquefy completely.
  2. Combine the yeast mixture with the flour, the salt, and the remaining water in a mixing bowl.
  3. Turn the dough onto a kneading surface and let rest for 2 – 3 minutes while you wash and dry the bowl.
  4. Knead the dough for 5 – 10 minutes. See the original recipe for details on Julia’s kneading technique [p. 59].
  5. Let the dough rest for 3 – 4 minutes, then knead again for a minute. The surface should be smooth and the dough will be soft and somewhat sticky.
  6. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and let it rise at room temperature (about 70F) until 3 1/2 times its original volume. This will probably take about 3 hours.
  7. Deflate [fold] the dough and return it to the bowl [p. 60].
  8. Let the dough rise at room temperature until not quite tripled in volume, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
  9. Meanwhile, prepare the rising surface: rub flour into canvas or linen towel placed on a baking sheet.
  10. Divide the dough into 3, 6, or 12 pieces depending on the size loaves you wish to make.
  11. Fold each piece of dough in two, cover loosely, and let the pieces relax for 5 minutes [p.62].
  12. Shape the loaves and place them on the prepared towel. See original recipe for detailed instructions [p. 62 or 68].
  13. Cover the loaves loosely and let them rise at room temperature until almost triple in volume, about 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours.
  14. Meanwhile, Preheat oven to 450F. Set up your “simulated baker’s oven” [p. 70] if you will use one.
  15. Using an “unmolding board,” transfer the risen loaves onto a baking sheet [p.65] or peel [p. 72].
  16. Slash the loaves.
  17. Spray the loaves with water and get them into the oven (either on the baking sheet or slide them onto the stone [p. 72]).
  18. Steam with the “steam contraption” [p. 71 and 72] or by spraying three times at 3-minute intervals.
  19. Bake for a total of about 25 minutes.
  20. Cool for 2 – 3 hours.

Post a comment » 40 Comments

  1. I really don’t know how to properly thank either Julia Child or you, Susan, for having us make this bread. When we smelled it baking, cut it open and ate it, savouring every crumb, like Julia, we were euphoric.

    Excellent choice!

  2. Well, yours are perfect! Julia would be proud! Now do I have the patience and courage? Your directions are so straightforward and simple to follow you may have just given me the courage! And if I could bake bread anything like yours…

  3. Ohhh that looks so delicious!! Yummy!

  4. Such a wonderful challenge – thanks so much, Susan! And your bread photos are absolutely gorgeous.

  5. Susan,
    Votre pain est magnifique!
    Your bread, and this post – what a lovely tribute to Julia.
    :^) breadsong

  6. Beautiful as always! I am sorry to missed this event :) , will try to make it as soon as I get a chance. Cheers, dewi

  7. So perfect and great pictures! I’ll get mine to be round someday.

  8. What a gorgeous opening shot Susan! Magnificent bread and a wonderful challenge!

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  10. They turned out absolutely perfect, wow! Julia would be proud :)

  11. Beautiful, as always. Thank you for letting me join in this month.

  12. Lovely photos, write-up and choice of recipe for this great day! Thank you Susan!! I suspect that Julia would be pleased, indeed.

  13. Beautiful…. Just beautiful!

  14. Thank you Susan for bringing me back to this one. Everytime I’ve baked this my husband says it’s like being transported back to Paris. Julia has inspired so many and seems like she will continue doing so for a long time to come. A joy to just discovering her but I’m so happy to be knowing her so much better with each of her recipes and all the stories from others.
    Love how you did the paper on the loaves with the string. I’ve been handed loaves like that in France ;-)

  15. Wow, you can just see the crackly crust in your slices, so gorgeous! I love how this bread turned out, we’ve been enjoying it last night and all day today.

  16. I love Julia Child too! Her cooking is so inspiring! You did a fantastic job, it looks absolutely perfect! :)

  17. Julia would have been thrilled to know you made pain français on her birthday! Coming from a baker it is indeed the best possible tribute. Thank you for sharing her enthusiasm, her dedication and… her recipe!

  18. Oh wow! Julia must have been on to something if she could turn out loaves as beautiful as in the picture! This is definitely worth a try – thanks so much for sharing :)

  19. Great job, as usual, Susan!

    I am so sad I could not join this party… just so that you know, I now realize what the problem was. I placed the dough in the wine cooler overnight to continue on the following day. My bread was flat and hard as a hockey puck. Only three days later Phil and I realized the unit had a problem and the half where I left the dough was not working, so my dough stayed for 16 hours in too warm an environment. The yeast was exhausted by the time I continued.

    oh, well….

    thanks for the heads up on this, though, I really wish I had been able to join the party

  20. Thanks Susan for choosing this recipe. I must admit that I was scared for the 20 page recipe, but I found it easier that some 1 page recipes I tried! Julia couldn’t have made it clearer.

  21. such a beautifully written post. and beautifully executed loaf. I have those books but never checked out her bread. so inspiring!

  22. Susan, you and Julia are two of my idols: Julia, of course, for what she has done for the home cook and for affecting a whole new respect for cooking. And, you for providing a web mecca for us home bakers to visit every Friday. I’ve been following you since your picture perfect Panetone I found searching the web for the holidays several years ago.
    I thank you and Julia for my finally being able to make a great baguette because it was a combination of both of your wise advice and recipes that I was able to achieve the proper, crumb, crust, appearance and flavor (I’m sure Julia would not have missed that tidbit you’ve added about using diastatic malt when she wrote her recipe had that magical ingredient been available to the general public:)) Thank you for your inspiration.

  23. Your loaves are absolutely gorgeous, Susan…lovely tribute to Julia. Thank you for including us buddies w/ the babes for this special event! =)

  24. Thanks for summarized the recipe for us. Your loaves are fantastic!

  25. Hi,
    Do you have the ingredients in grams?
    And do you leave the dough in the fridge overnight?
    Thank you!

  26. your bread is so perfect! What a lovely post for a true iconic woman.
    Best, Sandie

  27. Thanks so much for for the recipe. I made three loaves yesterday. Very tasty, but the crust was not as crusty as it should be. Could I have sprayed too much water? I may have undercooked its as they were not very dark in color either. Any other ideas, Thanks.

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  31. Dear Susan!
    Thanks so much for the recipe!
    Very tasty, is perfect!
    Thanks for baked together:)


  32. Sophia, here are the ingredients with gram equivalents:
    one cake (0.6 ounce or 17 grams) fresh yeast or one package active dry yeast [Susan's note: Here are some equivalents: fresh yeast: 17 grams; active dry yeast: 0.25 ounce or 7 grams). You could also use 5.6 grams of instant yeast]
    1/3 cup (80gm) warm water (not over 100 degrees F)
    3 1/2 cups (438gm) all-purpose flour
    2 1/4 (13gm) teaspoons salt
    1 1/4 cups (300gm) tepid water (70 to 74 degrees F)

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  35. It worked! My first edible, lovely loaf.

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