This really isn't complicated, though each steps I go through are the result of trying several different permutations before I was happy with the results, so I'm very specific. After you've done it a couple times, it will be second nature, and you do nearly everything by feel and smell. I know a lot of people are intimidated by bread making, but I have generally had good luck. Yeast is a hardy animal, as long as you don't get it too hot.
The real key to making french bread is not to hurry. It needs to be well-kneaded, and it needs to rise slowly to develop the proper interior texture. So even though your total hands on prep time is only about 1/2 hour, it takes 3 or 4 hours to bake, start to finish. In Paris, the bakers work all night so they can open with fresh bread at 7AM.
1 packet (or equivalent) dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
3 - 6 cups unbleached white flour, preferably organic
2 Cups Water
2-3 teaspoons of olive oil
1 Egg White (optional)
French Bread Pan, or Cookie Sheet.
Squirt Bottle of Water.
1. In a biggish mixing bowl (like at least 12" diameter, to hold 3-4 quarts), combine 1/4 cup flour, yeast, and 2 cups warm water (110 f). Stir until flour is evenly dissolved. Cover bowl with a clean towel and leave it sit for about an hour in a warmish kitchen -- at least 68 f.
2. Uncover bowl, and insure that the yeast is active. The surface of the liquid might be bubbly, or it may be more subtle -- 'blooms' of yeast rising through the milky water/flour combination. The unmistakable sign is it gives off a definite yeasty smell. If you managed to kill your yeast, start over, though I've rarely had problems.
3. Gradually stir in 2 cups of flour and the 2 teaspoons of salt. It's important to add some flour, add salt a bit at a time, because dumping 2 teaspoons of salt right into the yeast mixture can kill the yeast. You can use a mixer, but I prefer a large wooden spoon, mostly because I don't like cleaning beaters.
4. Continue adding flour a bit at a time, until you get a soft dough that's coming away from the sides of the bowl. Sprinkle more flour on your mixing spoon so you can rub the dough off the spoon. Sprinkle more flour on the sides of the bowl and rub dough off.
5. Turn the the dough out on a floured board or clean counter top. Knead by folding over and flattening dough. Add more flour to the board if the dough sticks to your hands or the countertop. Knead for about 10-15 minutes, adding flour as you go, until you have a stiff mass of dough that is not sticky on the outside. The goals of this stage is to develop the gluten and to add as much flour as the dough can hold. You have to go on feel here -- too much flour will dry out the dough to where it no longer sticks to itself when folded and smushed, and too little will leave the dough sticky. Depending on how damp your flour is, you'll end up putting between 4 and 6 cups of flour total in the mixture. Form dough into a ball.
Note: pretty much everything between steps 3 and 5 can be done using a counter top mixer (i.e. Kitchen-Aid or equivalent) with a dough hook, but that takes away the hands on experience and the exercise involved in the process.
6. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil into your mixing bowl, and roll the dough ball in it until covered. Place dough in the bowl, cover with a clean cloth and set aside to rise. Again, it should be at least 68 f where you set it to rise. I generally put the bowl in an unheated oven. I used to put a pan of hot water in the oven with the rising dough, but I found that it rose too fast, which affects the texture of the resulting bread. You can even prepare the dough the night before, and stick it in the refrigerator overnight, where it will rise, very slowly.
7. After at least 90 minutes of rise time, punch down the dough and separate into 2 (or 3, depending on how skinny you like your baguettes) equal sized portions. Flatten each portion of dough and fold it over itself a couple times. Roll the dough up into a cylinder, and then roll and stretch the cylinder until it's about 18 inches long.
8. Place the loaves either into a lightly oiled french bread pan or on an lightly oiled cookie sheet. Cover with a clean cloth and set aside to rise -- I put it in the unheated oven.
9. After about 90 minutes, or whenever the loaves roughly double in size, preheat oven to 500 f. Take a very sharp knife or razor and make 3 or 4 shallow slashes diagonally in the top of the loaves. If you like your bread shiny, brush beaten egg white over the top of the loaf. Try and avoid having egg while run down the sides of the pan too much as it will make your loaves stick to the pan.
10. When the oven is at 500 f, use the squirt bottle to spray a few times into the oven. Place loaves on a shelf at the middle height in your oven -- too high and the top will get too dark, too low and the bottom will burn. Spray down the loaves with water mist and close the oven.
11. After 5 minutes, turn down the oven to 400 f, and spray more water on the loaves.
12. Allow to bake for at least 30 minutes, repeating the water spray every 7 or 8 minutes. When the bread is done, the crust will be a deep brown, and if you tap the loaf with a finger it will be hard and give a satisfying thump.
13. Pull the loaves out, and allow to cool until you can pick up the pan bare-handed. Take the loaves out of the pan, and allow to cool on a rack. After approximately 15 minutes it should be cool enough to slice.
To store: roll up in a paper grocery sack, or wrap with a towel. Ideally you and yours will eat it all before it gets stale. If you seal it in a plastic bag, the crust will get soft, which is anathema. If that happens, throwing it in a 350 f oven for a few minutes will revive it. If the loaf gets hard you can revive it by wetting the crust liberally with water and throwing it in the oven, with a spritz or two from your squirt bottle.
At any rate, this is bread meant to be eaten the same day it is made, so if you keep it more than 24 hours, grind it into bread crumbs or feed it to the birds.