Spur of the moment visits to Paris might not be in the cards for most of us, but the trappings are easy enough to arrange. A big bowl of café au lait doesn't take much time at all, and you can find a perfectly good croissant or baguette at any artisan bakery. Of course, if you don't have an artisan bakery around or just prefer to make your own, it gets a little more complicated. You'll find plenty of decent recipes that will make an acceptable pseudo-baguette, but if they include dairy products or take only a few hours, they're not authentic. Making a real French-style baguette takes longer, but it's worth it.
It's Your Daily Bread
A classic French-style baguette is one of the simplest breads you can make, because it has just four ingredients: Flour, water, yeast and salt. Bakers call that a "lean" bread, because it has no added fats or dairy products to soften the dough. This means there's nothing to keep a baguette soft and fresh-tasting after the first day, and they're really intended to be baked fresh daily. That's important to know, because any really authentic recipe starts the day before.
Start With a Starter
Such a basic, bare-bones bread wouldn't have much flavor if you just made it and baked it right away, so the best recipes call for a starter or "levain" to be made up the day before. As the starter rests in your refrigerator, natural enzymes and bacteria in the flour start breaking down its starch molecules and releasing the wheat's natural sugars. A loaf baked without this starter comes out pale and golden and looks nice enough, but one made properly with a starter gets the deeper, redder brown that you'll recognize from professional bakeries. Artisan bakeries get this effect by simply saving part of today's dough for tomorrow's bread. You can do this, too, if you want to bake baguettes every day, but otherwise you'll just mix up a starter of flour, water, salt and yeast and let it rest overnight in your fridge.
Mix Up the Dough
To make up the main dough, take your overnight starter out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature. Cutting it into small pieces makes that part go a bit faster. Measure out your dry and wet ingredients and stir them until they're just combined, and then add your starter to the bowl. Mix them on low speed for a few minutes until they're thoroughly combined, then turn off your mixer and let the dough rest for 20 minutes or so. In French, that rest is called the "autolyse," and it gives time for the water to be fully absorbed into the flour and for gluten development to start. That time spent resting shortens your overall kneading time, so once you turn your mixer back on, the dough will be ready to go in just a few more minutes.
Rise and Fold
Let your dough rise, covered, for about 45 minutes to an hour. Pour it out onto the counter and let it gently deflate a bit, but don't knead it like you would with sandwich bread. Instead, just fold the top, bottom and sides into the middle to form a loose ball, and slide it back into your bowl to rise again. With a baguette, you want to keep the large air bubbles in the dough instead of squeezing them out, so handle it gently. After another hour or so, it'll be fully inflated again, so turn it out and divide it into loaf-sized portions. Shape each one into a loose ball the same way, cover them, and let them rest again for 15 or 20 minutes.
Shape the Loaves
Up to this point, the process has been time consuming but pretty simple. Shaping the loaves is where you'll need to practice a bit to develop the right touch. Start by gently stretching and flattening each piece of dough into a rough rectangle. Use your fingertips, not your palms, so you don't squish all the bubbles from the dough. Now, fold down the top edge of the dough to make a small roll, and press it firmly into place with the edge of your hand, so it sticks and seals itself. Roll and seal it twice more, so it makes a cigar shape. It'll stretch itself a bit longer, in the process. Set that piece of dough aside, and repeat the process with the others. Let them rest for a few minutes before continuing.
Now, take that first piece, cup your hands over it, and gently roll it back and forth. Use almost no downward pressure, because you don't want to squeeze out the bubbles. It should stretch gently as it rolls, just under the weight of your hands. Keep going until it reaches the full traditional length of 16 inches. If the dough fights you and tries to shrink back, set it aside to rest and move on to another loaf. Keep going until all the loaves all the right length.
Take the Last Steps
Let the loaves rise once more until they're noticeably puffier, but don't wait for the traditional "nearly doubled in size" because that doesn't work with baguettes. Heat up your oven as directed in your recipe, then carefully roll the risen baguettes onto a baking sheet.
Pro Tip: You can avoid that step by letting them rise right on the sheet. Using a razor blade or a very sharp knife, make shallow lengthwise slashes in the top of the loaves. You don't want to cut straight down. Instead, undercut the top of the loaf at a shallow angle.
Brush the baguettes with water to simulate the steam used in a commercial bakery. Slide them into the very hot oven and bake them for about 25 to 27 minutes. They'll be quite dark, darker than you're used to with other breads, but be brave: That extra baking time and darker crust is essential if you're going to get the classic baguette texture. Let the loaves cool on a wire rack until they reach room temperature, then use them immediately or wrap them airtight for the freezer.