Beetroot and thyme baguettes

Food & drink
Beetroot and thyme French baguettes

In common with a lot of people, I buy big bunches of beetroot because I feel good about buying something that’s quite evidently been yanked straight out of the ground and that comes complete with leaves and dirt. I rarely have a clear idea about what I’m going to do with it, but still I buy it.

The leaves tend to wilt, and get lopped off and chucked in the compost bin, which in itself is something of a travesty as they make very good eating, and the purple roots sit in the fridge for a little too long, until they’ve got a hint of softness about them, at which point, they get sliced up, roasted and then thrown away because nobody actually likes them done that way, apart from me.

The biggest problem I have with beetroot is the mess – prepping a beetroot is a kitchen bloodbath that leaves everything covered in a bright reddish-purple slick. Don’t wear anything white when slicing beetroot.

I’m maligning this quite wonderful vegetable, though. Treated well, and eaten fresh or cooked properly, it’s a wonderful, if divisive, thing.

This recipe puts it to good use in a baguette, marrying the deep earthy flavour with the equally heavyweight flavour of time … this is like autumn distilled and condensed down into a piece of bread.

Baguettes are a little tricky, and after one too many disasters involving lovingly tended pieces of dough welding themselves onto baking paper intended to make the whole operation of moving ‘ready to bake’ dough around easier, I’ve decided to invest in two things: some proper silicon baking mats, like these, which have handy targets and rulers for optimum baked product placing, or these ones, which are far more sensible, and a proper baking tin that’s actually made for baking baguettes, like this one, which strikes me as about a tenner well spent.

This recipe uses the pre-ferment method, a way of injecting a certain depth into a loaf through developing and building it up in stages over a period of, well, days.

Begin the night before, with a starter dough made from 200g of strong white flour, 3g of instant yeast and 150ml of water. Also add two big tablespoons of chopped, fresh thyme, because you might as well give one of the heavyweight flavours a head start. The dough will be rough and won’t look particularly promising, but tip it into a bowl, cover with clingfilm and put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, the tiny amount of yeast will have worked its magic despite the cold of the fridge, and the dough will be alive and kicking. Most importantly, this long, slow, gentle ferment will have allowed the starter to develop a real depth of flavour and complexity that simply isn’t present in a dough that’s raised in a couple of hours using a lot of commercial yeast.

The process from here is simple, just a matter of building out from that starter dough with more of the same, so add 500g of flour to the starter, 15g of salt, 5g of sugar, 5g of instant yeast, 250ml of water and 250g of washed, peeled and coarsely grated beetroot. Unless you want your kitchen to look like a crime scene, I’d suggest mixing and kneading this particular dough in a mixer with a dough hook, for about ten or fifteen minutes, pausing for a minute every few minutes to let the dough relax.

The truth is that because the dough has developed overnight, it already has a substantial flavour to it, so the traditional bulk fermentation step that comes next can be shortened considerably – an initial rise of about an hour should see the dough double in size, at which point, knock it back down and allow it to rise again for another half an hour.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut it into six equal pieces. If you don’t have a Scottish dough blade, get one.

Now, the difficult question of how to shape a baguette. It’s not that hard, really, but it takes a little practice, and the key is to get the ends nice and sharply pointed, so that they look really … French.

Flatten out a piece of dough into a rectangle, and roll the top long edge back into the centre, pressing it down firmly. Continue by pulling the bottom edge up and back over the middle, right to the other side, pinching and rolling it to create a tight seal. Rock the baguette back and forwards, to create tension in the surface of the dough, and press down harder at each end to taper them off into a sharp point.

Place each baguette onto a very well floured piece of baking paper, and pull the paper up between each baguette to keep them separate and to support the sides, or just use one of those devastatingly simple baguette pans mentioned earlier. Cover with plastic and prove for about half an hour.

Now to bake.

The oven needs preheating as high as it’ll go, about 240 to 250c. Slash each baguette four or five times with diagonal cuts using either a razor blade or a serrated knife, and slide them straight onto a warmed baking tray, and then straight into the oven, along with a small tray of boiling water and a good blast of spray from a spray bottle – steam equals crust, so try to make and trap as much as possible before slamming the door shut and feeling like a proper baker.

Bake for eighteen minutes, turn the trays around, swapping top for bottom, and bake for another eight to ten minutes, then cool on a wire rack until completely cool.

There you go – a decent use for beetroot, at last.

This recipe comes from the excellent book Bread, by Dean Brettschneider.