Me, a bread maker? I don’t bake; I merely stand dumbfounded, handing the actual bakers-at-work the tools and ingredients that they need.

Whether I’m with friends baking brownies from pre-made mixes or cookies from scratch, my involvement typically includes no more than handing friends cups of water. And pouring the cookie batter onto the trays.

Non-existent baking skills withstanding, I did try my hand at baking, courtesy of PAUL boulangerie. So together with other fellow journalists, we turned bakers for an afternoon. Or rather, the head baker’s very curious assistants.

Paul boulangerie, takashimaya Paul boulangerie: Maxime Holder and his father Francis Holder

PAUL at Takashimaya. On the right: Mr Maxime Holder, CEO of PAUL International and his father, Francis Holder

Ubiquitous in France, this international bakery franchise is so proud of its traditional French recipes that modern or “localised” bread recipes are the last thing you’ll see. Its recipes stay true to its humble roots in Lille, especially when it comes to Paul’s lengthy seven hour-long bread-making process.

At this media session, we tried our hand at kneading and shaping the dough for two types of French breads: the long flûte and the pain de campagne (country bread).

Here’s a few tips and tricks that we learnt about baking French breads:Bread baking at Paul: Explaining the amateur mistakes

WHEN KNEADING THE DOUGH BY HAND . . .

Avoid adding salt to the dough, says PAUL International CEO Maxime Holder (featured on the right). He shares that their bread recipes do not mix salt with dough because in their opinion, the addition of salt breaks down the dough, making it more difficult and tougher to knead.

Add water instead of more flour to the dough, if you’re having difficulties with mixing the dough, says Franck Heuzé, the maître boulanger (head baker) of PAUL Singapore. Beginners in particular, may make the mistake of adding too more flour too.

When kneading, use your fingers, not your palms. Holder explains that two things are key when it comes to baking breads: time and temperature. So to minimise the transferal of heat from your palms to the dough, only your fingers and the edge of your palms should touch the dough when you’re kneading it.

A clear sign of an amateur baker at work? Palms caked in dough; sadly, we concede that most of us were guilty of this.

Another tip, when washing up? Cornflour helps: take dashings of this flour to rub off sticky dough from your hands.

Dough kneading by hand is really tough work. With the speed and dexterity needed, it does become a 10-minute arm workout in itself. I could barely knead the dough into that desirably smooth and elastic texture; perhaps it is high time to start heading to the gym. . .

Handling the dough isn’t that easy either, as we were soon to find out.

MEASURING THE DOUGH
The actual bread baking process at PAUL takes up a full seven hours as the dough is left to “sit” undisturbed in between each step. Bakers are to check on the dough every hour to let air into the dough; even if it means reporting back to work at midnight.

Happily, we’re spared from waiting for that four hours of fermentation. An earlier batch of dough has been prepared and we’re off to the next step: measuring and portioning the dough.

The dough is measured into two shapes: 280g of rectangular masses of dough for the flute, 520g for the circular country-style breads. To shape the dough into flûtes, we roll it out with a rolling pin, then folding it into half before closing the dough.

Baking at PAUL: Measuring the dough Paul boulangerie: Weighing and shaping the dough

Franck Heuzé (left) weighs the dough. On the right: We tried our hand at shaping the dough, to some less than satisfactory results . . .

To avoid warming the dough up, the circular country bread has to be kneaded into shape fast; we lift the dough from the table with the scraper and knead it quickly into shape in a circular motion.

If you’re too slow, you may overstretch the dough when it sticks to your hands and the table. Yes, it’s a sticky, messy business, especially in the hands of novices.

Baking at PAUL: Placing the flutes on the baking tray Baking at PAUL: Signing the dough

(L-R): Frank Heuzé demonstrates how the loaves should be placed; a journalist tries her hand at

The flûtes are transferred onto the trays to be baked. Before placing it into the oven, a few thin incisions across each flûte so that it ‘browns’ evenly when baking.

Bread baking at PAUL: Flutes in the oven

The breads go into the oven! Now we wait with trepidation.

It takes about 40 minutes to bake these loaves. At this point, Heuzé adds that the home baker could use a water spray gun to squirt some water onto the breads. This helps the bread to bake evenly.

Bread baking at PAUL

And voilà, our freshly baked flûtes, hot from the oven. Warm, crispy on the outside and super chewy on the inside.

Much as we love the breads, baking is tough (even with the extra help). We’re sticking to our day jobs.

PAUL is located at Takashimaya Shopping Centre, #03-16/16A/17, Tel: 6836 1914.

Bakery opening hours: 8.30am to 10pm on Sundays to Thursdays, 8.30am to 11pm on Fridays to Saturdays. Restaurant: 10 am to 10pm on Sundays to Thursdays, 10am to 11pm Fridays to Saturdays.