Note: This is step 3 of the multistep Momofuku bánh mi recipe
The last, and arguably, most important part of making bánh mi is the Vietnamese Baguettes.
Vietnamese baguettes are light airy loaves of bread that have a paper-thin crackley crust that will flake into a million pieces and cover you in crumbs the moment you pick one up. They’re almost not like bread at all. Eating a Vietnamese baguette is like biting into an impossibly soft, fluffy chunk of air surrounded by a crisp thin crust.
If you’ve never eaten a Vietnamese baguette, you’re missing out. Find yourself a Vietnamese sub shop and buy yourself a loaf right now. It’ll probably set you back about 50¢ and if you’re really lucky, it’ll be hot and fresh out of the oven. Even if it’s not, it’ll still be one of the most delectable loaves of bread you’ve ever eaten in your life.
Chang doesn’t have a recipe for making Vietnamese baguettes for his bánh mi and I probably know why:
1) he probably couldn’t find a solid recipe or;
2) it’s ridiculously hard to make Vietnamese baguettes.
Although many people have reported trying Andrea Nguyen’s recipe for baguettes with successful results, I didn’t because it doesn’t contain rice flour. According to reports, Ms. Nguyen’s recipe makes a baguette with a crumb that is “soft and chewy, but not light and airy like the super cheap [baguettes] that quickly go stale.”
I wanted to make those light and airy super cheap baguettes. Those are the ones I salivate over at Vietnamese bánh mi shops. Its true they do go stale quickly, but the point is, you eat them before they ever get a chance to go stale.
With dreams of a crisp, light baguette in mind, I tackled the second most common recipe on the internet, from myfoodaffair. I followed the recipe to the letter, but my loaves came out heavy, dense, thick-skinned and ugly. They were so bad, Mike refused to take photos of them. Even so, as ugly as they were, they still had to be tasted:
Me: Oh, shut up.
Mike: No really, they’re good. [CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH CHEW CHEW]
Me: They’re not supposed to sound like that!
Needless to say, I abandoned that recipe and went in search for yet another.
According to Mike, Vietnamese baguette recipes are highly obscure and hard to find because most Vietnamese people don’t bake their own baguettes; why spend hours baking when you can buy a perfect baguette for 50¢? Still, I wanted, no, needed to bake my own Vietnamese baguettes so Mike humoured me by searching the internet in Vietnamese (who knew Google works in vietnamese?). Although Mike is fluent in Vietnamese, the recipe he eventually found had strange technical terms that neither he, nor Google translate, could make out.
We ended up asking his dad for some linguistic help. I’m pretty sure that my father-in-law now thinks I’m crazy for wanting to bake Vietnamese baguettes, and I have a feeling that during his next visit, he’ll have a dozen fresh store-bought baguettes with him. Still, he translated the recipe and I was as good as gold. Eagerly, I gave it a try. And then another. And then another, for a total of three times.
Interestingly enough, the “authentic” Vietnamese recipe doesn’t contain rice flour. There were, however, a lot of notations about the correct temperature to let the dough rise (22º-25ºc) and differences in rising time in the Winter and Summer (30min and 1hr respectively).
I was really excited to give the Vietnamese recipe a go, but the first loaves ended up too brown and the slashes I made didn’t expand. They also didn’t rise much and so were pretty dense. The bottoms were all burnt, and generally, I’d call try #1 a complete and utter failure.
For try #2, the second time around, I made the slashes deeper and let the dough rise longer. This time the slashes I made expanded a bit more. Instead of using parchment paper (as the recipe suggested) I used a higher temperature rated silpat and stacked a second baking sheet underneath to reduce the temperature on the bottom of the loaf. I also switched to making(ruining?) only one loaf at a time. No burning on the bottom! But the loaf was still way too dense for my taste.
For try #3, I switched to bread flour and changed the way I was shaping the loaves. On the previous two loaves I shaped the baguettes the traditional French way. This time, I got smarter (and hungrier) and bought a store bought loaf. Close inspection showed that I should be rolling the loaf instead of pinching it. Success! Sort of. The slashes expanded and the loaves doubled in volume, but they still didn’t have the crackley paper skin or the soft, moist, fluffy insides of a store-bought loaf.
At the same time, the store-bought loaves showed me just how far off I was from the real thing. And also, just how good the real thing can be. Two recipes, four variations and many, many, dense loaves of bread later, I’m ready to admit defeat, for now. But it’s not over yet, Vietnamese Baguettes. I’ll figure you out! In the meantime, I’ll have to hope my father-in-law shows up with those baguettes or I’m not going to be eating any Momofuku bánh mi anytime soon!