French Bread and a New Oven Test

Finally, we’ve replaced the old, tired, and basically broken gas oven with a new model. The oven has been on its last legs for a while now, with a maximum heat far below what I would prefer for bread baking, and we were long overdue for an upgrade. Obviously, the best thing to test out the new oven is a few loaves of bread.

I decided on a French bread based on Peter Reinhart’s recipe, with a shorter proof because of the hot weather. The dough itself still overproofed – my fault for not paying enough attention and trying to paint the kitchen at the same time – but the end result was still far better than anything out of the old oven.

The finished baguette -the “ears” are not as open as I would like due to over proofing the dough, but the colour and texture is still great

The oven reached its maximum temperature in 10 minutes, held in the steam whilst the loaves began baking, and gave a consistent and delicious dark golden-brown crust. Even over-proofed, there was a significant amount of “oven spring”, especially in the smaller loaves.

One of the smaller rolls, which rose slightly better than the baguettes (but were still slightly over proofed)

French bread – makes 3 small baguettes, or a combination of shapes

Pâte fermentée

  • 140g plain flour
  • 140g strong white bread flour
  • 5g salt
  • 1.5g (1/2 tsp) instant yeast
  • 185g cold water


  • All of the pâte fermentée
  • 140g plain flour
  • 140g strong white bread flour
  • 5g salt
  • 1.5g (1/2 tsp) instant yeast
  • 185g lukewarm water
  1. Combine the ingredients for the pâte fermentée, knead for 4-6 minutes, and place into an oiled bowl. This is basically a complete bread dough, but will be used in the final recipe as an “old dough” to improve the flavour of the final loaves. Bulk ferment for 2-3 hours, until risen, and then either use immediately, or de-gas slightly and refrigerate for up to three days.
  2. If using refrigerated pâte fermentée, remove from the fridge 1 hour prior to using and cut into a dozen small pieces.
  3. Combine the pâte fermentée with all of the remaining ingredients, and knead on a lightly floured work surface for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place into an oiled bowl, cover with cling film or a tea towel, and bulk ferment for 2 hours.
  4. Divide and shape the dough. For baguettes, first make a bâtard shape, rest for 5 minutes, then stretch gently by rolling the dough back and forth. To make the small loaves pictured here, shape the dough first into small boules, rest for 5 minutes, then roll out gently, applying more pressure at the ends.
  5. Place loaves seam side up onto a floured linen couche or tea towel, as shown below, and proof for 1 hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to max with a baking dish on the bottom. Just before baking, tip one cup of boiling water into the baking dish to create steam. Turn the loaves onto a baking tray dusted with flour or semolina, and place onto the middle shelf of the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 230°C, and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the baking tray if necessary for an even bake, and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, until golden brown.
  7. Transfer to a wire rack and cool before eating. These loaves are best eaten on the day of baking.
French bread dough in the “bulk ferment” stage after 2 hours.
Dividing and shaping for baguettes (above) and small rolls (below)
French bread proofing on a linen couche
Hours of excitement provided by watching the dough bake through the crystal clear glass of the new oven door…

From the archives: Wood fired pizzas

This is a re-post from the start of 2014. We had a clay oven built using materials from the farm, following the method in The River Cottage Bread Handbook. The oven has since been demolished (mainly by a cow), but as the weather is starting to heat up here in Victoria, if you have an outdoor oven, or even just wanted to try this recipe in a regular oven, now’s the perfect time for a pizza-fest, a few beers, and a couple of glasses of limoncello (here’s a good recipe for limoncello from The Italian Dish)

NYE Wood fired pizzas – originally posted 02/01/2014

We tend to keep things quiet on New Year’s Eve. Last year we were asleep well before midnight because we had to get up in the morning for a trip, which was perhaps a bit too quiet, so this year we have decided to fire up the outdoor oven and throw in some pizzas.

The oven, complete with wonky arch, rebuilt after cows knocked it down
The oven, complete with wonky arch, rebuilt after cows knocked it down

The wood fire oven sits in the paddock behind the shed, where I built it a couple of years ago. I followed the River Cottage Bread Handbook method of building a clay oven, using clay and sand from the farm, some railway sleepers, and bricks from our fallen down fireplace. It has since been partially destroyed more than once by cows, sheep, and the weather, but is still in a workable state (if with a slightly wonky arch). If you have the space and the time – it took me a few weekends, but it was free – I would absolutely recommend building one. It takes a bit of firing, which is why I don’t use it very often, but for making pizzas it is definitely worth the effort.


The topping recipes, including the sauce, have all been perfected by my wife, leaving the pizza bases to me. The best pizza bases I ever made came from the recipe in Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. That was also the most difficult dough I have ever worked with – it was so stretchy that a piece the size of a coin would unfurl to the size of a dinner plate as soon as you looked at it. I now use a much simpler, and almost as good recipe for the dough, which is a little firmer and a lot easier to handle.

Tomato Sauce for Pizzas makes enough for 8-10 (freeze half for next time)

  • 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • small handful of basil
  • 1 tin good quality plum tomatoes
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat and add the garlic. Fry until just beginning to turn golden.
  2. Add tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper, stir.
  3. Simmer on a medium heat for 20-30 minutes. Halfway through, crush the tomatoes with a spoon.
  4. Cool before using on pizzas. Each pizza will only need just over a tablespoon of sauce.

Simple Pizza Dough makes 4 pizza bases

  • 250g strong white bread flour
  • 3g instant yeast
  • 5g salt
  • 160g warm water
  • 15g olive oil
  1. Combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl and tip out onto a lightly floured surface.
  2. Knead for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.
  3. Rest in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with cling film, for about 90 minutes or until doubled.
  4. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and shape each into a round. Rest for 5 minutes. At this stage, you can also refrigerate until needed.
  5. One at a time, roll the dough out until about 5mm thick. Transfer to a bread peel or the back of a baking sheet well dusted with semolina flour.
  6. Add toppings, then slide into the wood fired oven, directly onto the stones. Bake for 3-6 minutes, turning if necessary. Remove to a low oven to keep warm.
  7. Repeat with the remaining pizzas.
Dough balls ready to shape
Dough balls ready to shape

It is also possible to cook these pizzas in a conventional oven. Preheat the oven to maximum with a pizza stone on an upper-middle shelf. Cook as directed, leaving the oven to preheat again for a couple of minutes between pizzas. It will not result in the same crisp base, and cooking time will be longer, but they will still be delicious!

Me pretending that I know what I am doing
Me pretending that I know what I am doing


We vary our toppings depending on what we feel like and how many people we are making pizzas for, but these are a few returning favourites.

  • Smoked salmon, garlic oil, cream cheese, and asparagus
  • Sweet potato, feta, and seasonal vegetables
  • A mix of deli meats with or without small homemade meatballs with mozzarella
  • Potato pizza – we first tried this in Venice and it is amazing!
  • Hawaiian – My father in law’s favourite – ham, pineapple, onion and tomato with mozzarella. Delicious pizza sacrilege that would have half of Italy in tears.
Zucchini and sweet potato with feta, with zucchini flowers added after
Zucchini and sweet potato with feta, with zucchini flowers added after
Chorizo, capsicum and red onion
Chorizo, capsicum and red onion
Salmon and asparagus with garlic oil
Salmon and asparagus with garlic oil
The deadly Hawaiian
The deadly Hawaiian
All washed down with some homemade limoncello
All washed down with some homemade limoncello


Light Wholemeal Sourdough

This is a 70/30 blend of strong white bread flour and wholemeal flour , which gives it a great texture and a fairly subtle flavour that allows the sourness of the dough to come through.

To adjust how “sour” the loaf is, you can play around with the time between refreshing the starter – when you feed the starter with flour and water. Refreshing more often, or with greater quantities of flour and water, will reduce the sour flavours in the final bread. The longer you leave a refreshed starter for, the more acids build up which create the sour flavour, but also more of the yeasts are used up. Try to find a balance that works for you in terms of the flavour of the dough, and the rising amount and time.

Light wholemeal sourdough

This is also the last loaf of bread that I will ever make in the clapped out tiny gas oven. It’s been emotional (not really), and hard work (very), but I’ve made some loaves that I have been very pleased with. Recently, the oven temperature dropped and we decided it was time to get a new oven, so now we’re waiting for the electrician to come and install the replacement. Obviously I’ll have to give it a test drive this weekend…

Light wholemeal sourdough

Light Wholemeal Sourdough – makes two boules

  • 240g wholegrain flour
  • 560g strong bread flour
  • 530ml warm water
  • 300g white starter @ 130% hydration
  • 16g salt
  1. For this loaf, I refreshed the starter twice at 12 hour intervals, building it from 50g of rye starter to the finished white starter by adding 100g of white flour and 130g of water each time. I kept the left over starter and refreshed it once more to make sourdough pancakes.
  2. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Autolyse for 20 minutes, then stretch/fold a dozen times.
  3. Bulk ferment for 4 hours, doing a stretch/fold a few times in the first couple of hours.
  4. Divide and shape into boules, and transfer to well floured bannetons. Proof for 2 hours at room temperature. Transfer to the fridge in plastic bags and rest overnight (this step is optional).
  5. Preheat the oven to maximum with a lidded cast-iron pot (Dutch oven) on the middle shelf. Bake one loaf at a time for 30 minutes with the lid on, then reduce the temperature to 230˚C and bake for 15 minutes with the lid off.
  6. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for at least an hour before slicing. Repeat with the remaining loaf.
The crumb is light and open, with colour from the wholemeal flour