The quest for the holey grail–pain de campagne

Why do we like holes in our bread? A holey cross-section of meatloaf doesn’t elicit awed gasps from the crowd, nor would one clap joyfully upon discovering a number of lofty air pockets inside one’s cookie–on the contrary, holes in food normally prompt those pesky little questions like “why are there holes in my food?” Swiss cheese is just about the only holey food, other than bread, that is relished for its network of tasteless bits of air. Profiteroles have one giant interior cavity, but this we tend to stuff with tastier things than air, likewise with tubular pastas. Perhaps I am missing some crucial and cherished holey foods (bundt cake totally doesn’t count), but I feel pretty certain that we generally enjoy a nice close crumb on most of our baked goods, and would rather not find air pockets in our chicken parmesan.

It is funny, then, that a matrix of irregular holes is a beautiful sight to behold in a nice country-style loaf, and is a regular measure of a successful bread. Not only do these large air pockets indicate proper fermentation (i.e. a tasty loaf), but they turn the bread into a tool. Try scooping up that last pile of chunky tomato sauce off your plate with a flimsy, tight-crumbed sandwich bread, and you will begin to understand the glory of the holey loaf.

I was in the mood for a nice plate-sopping bread with a thick, crunchy, golden crust and a soft, chewy, hole-filled interior. I turned to the masters of country-style loaves, and paged through Bread Alone by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik–a book that I’ve been neglecting in the wake of my Peter Reinhart mania. Leader and Blahnik define pain de campagne as any bread that’s made of a baguette dough but is not shaped into a baguette. While the recipes in this book for baguette and pain de campagne actually do differ in hydration–the latter containing less flour–I decided to stick with the baguette dough recipe in my wild search for the holey grail of breads, and would just play around with the shaping.

To begin, I made my poolish one night ahead of time by combining 8 oz. lukewarm water, 8 oz. bread flour, and 1/4 tsp. yeast. The next day, I took my poolish out of the fridge, and added to it 8oz. lukewarm water, 1/4 tsp. yeast, 20 oz. bread flour (the recipe calls for more, but this was plenty!) and 1 TB salt (which I found to be a bit excessive upon tasting).

I kneaded for nearly 15 minutes and then let my dough have a nice long three-hour rise while I had a nice long three-hour nap in the sun.

For giggles, I shaped my now-doubled dough into a batard/torpedo hybrid and let it proof for a little over an hour.

I sharpened up my knife as best I could, slashed my oddly shaped loaf, and stuck it into the 450 degree oven, adding a little burst of steam for the first couple of minutes. I gave the bread a few rotations while baking, and after maybe 20 or 30 minutes, a nice dark caramel-colored loaf emerged with a ridiculously thick crackling crust.

The moment of holey thruth arrived and I cut into my loaf, hoping to see those completely tasteless but rather pretty and somewhat functional air pockets.

Air pockets I found! Not in numbers worthy of the holey grail bread title, but enough to please my sensibilities and to at least temporarily quench my questing thirst. Although a bit heavy on the salt, the bread itself was most delicious. The crumb was soft and chewy and quite flavorful from the overnight poolish. Lots of sugars had been released and joined forces with the thick outer crust to make it not only heartily crunchy, but also nicely sweet. I enjoyed it immensely when paired with a big daub of butter, but I think that the next time I’m searching for the perfect holey crumb, I’ll bring along some swiss cheese.

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5 thoughts on “The quest for the holey grail–pain de campagne

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