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.

Pain a l’Ancienne–a delightful and entirely misnamed bread

Unless modern refrigeration dates back a bit further than I realize, there is nothing “ancient” about this bread formula, as the name begs you to believe. The general principal behind pain a l’ancienne (as relayed to me by my new favorite book in the whole wide world–Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice) is that the dough is made with ice cold water, and is immediately plunked down in the fridge where it remains overnight, effectively putting the kibosh on yeast activation. Because the yeast is napping, the enzymes in the dough can go to work breaking the complex carbohydrates down into simple sugars without interruption. In a dough fermented at room temperature these newly freed sugars would be gobbled up pac-man style by the yeast–which is active because of the warmth–whereas the sugars in the refrigerated dough remain uneaten as long as the yeast slumbers in the cold. When the dough is removed from the fridge the next day, the little yeasties begin munching on all of the sugars, but can only process so much food before baking time. This means that a sugar reserve remains, lending a wonderful rich flavor to the dough and providing fodder for that lovely crust caramelization. Although I am enjoying the image of toga-ed Romans popping bowls of dough into the fridge and fiddling around with magnetic poetry, I’m pretty sure the ancients didn’t chill their dough in this manner, and must conclude that the name is a bit fanciful (Reinhart rightfully suggests that a more appropriate name would be pain moderne).

After reading Reinhart’s first chapter in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, I was especially intrigued by the pain a l’ancienne. Not only is it clear that this particular “delayed fermentation” method revolutionized Reinhart’s own approach to bread making, but that it would revolutionize (and perhaps currently is revolutionizing) bread making altogether. This sounded like a promising first loaf to try from my treasured new book.

Despite all the talk of revolution, this is an incredibly simple bread formula. It feels almost like cheating to get such seriously excellent loaves with so little effort, but then you get over that guilt and just enjoy eating your bread. So, here it is:

I cut the recipe in half, as it makes approximately six baguettes, and I can only eat approximately one baguette. I can now give away approximately two baguettes.

Last night, I mixed together 13.5 oz white wheat flour (Reinhart says to use bread flour, but I only had all-purpose which has a slightly lower protein content) with 1 1/8 tsp. salt, 7/8 tsp. instant yeast, and 9 oz. ICE COLD water. The recipe calls for 7 or 8 minutes of electric mixer action, as the dough is rather wet. Having no electric mixer, and not being able to really knead as I would with a drier dough, I improvised a hands-in-the-bowl “kneading,” which turned into a hands-in-the-air “agitating,” as the bowl refused to stay in one place and was banging around annoyingly. After looking ridiculous with my air kneading for a sufficient length of time, I wrapped the bowl of dough in a bag (to keep the moisture in) and stuck it in the fridge.

I somehow managed to fiddle with the fridge dial enough to avoid deep freeze, and found a nice ball of dough, somewhat risen and a happy 40 degrees, when I pulled it out of the fridge this afternoon. After 2 1/2 hours in my warm kitchen, the dough had finished doubling in size, and I prepared it for the chopping block.

Careful not to deflate the dough, I divided this blob into three awkardly shaped (or shall I say rustic) loaves, and slashed the tops.

My oven was a toasty 475 degrees when I slid these guys in, and I gave them a nice steam bath to get things going. After 10 minutes I made all the loaves switch places in the oven to avoid the uneven browning that was setting in, and 5 or so minutes later, they emerged all evenly and beautifully caramelized and crackling. I can’t express how satisfying that crackle is to me.

I don’t wish to belittle the quick faux-French baguettes that I made the other day, but there truly is no comparison between that bread, and what I just pulled out of the oven. The natural sugar in these loaves, so cleverly retained through delayed fermentation, formed the most pleasing caramel crust–one that was made thick and crackly by high temperature, steam, and an oven stone. Because the enzymes were given such ample opportunity to deconstruct the flour (18 hours in the fridge) a many-leveled and rich flavor emerged along with a smooth and perfectly chewy texture, with lovely little holes scattered throughout the crumb.

The more I chewed on the bread, the more the flavor and texture crescendoed into a power ballad on my palate. For the first time, I felt like I had produced bona fide bread. For such a simple and logical process, the resulting loaves were so complex, in the best way possible. I was mighty pleased, as you may be able to tell. What I further love about this formula is that, according to Reinhart, this is a great dough base not only for baguettes, but also for focaccia, ciabatta, and pizza. So easy, so versatile, so delicious. With a little olive oil on top and some greens to balance out my outrageously high bread intake, this made a nice little dinner.

Thanks a million, Peter Reinhart!

Not-so-French French bread for a lazy Sunday

If there were some culinary crisis in which it were decided that only one type of bread could exist in this world, I would undoubtedly choose baguette as my life-long bread companion. It is such a versatile loaf, happily accepting both savory and sweet toppings, grilling up nicely when made into a sandwich, toasting beautifully when cut into little rounds for crostini or sliced the long way for garlic bread, easily rip-able for instant hand-to-mouth conveyance, perfectly pleasant without any toppings, a nice base for bread crumbs, croutons, or bread pudding, and quite simply beautiful to behold. I love handling baguette dough, and especially enjoy shaping and slashing the loaves. There is nothing more satisfying than gently squeezing a fresh baguette and hearing a million tiny crackles.

Today felt like a baguette kind of day, but I wasn’t sure if I would be around at the proper time intervals to perform the various doughy tasks necessary. Although I’m sure I’ve never made a baguette that any French person would recognize as such, I have a basic baguette system that I am relatively pleased with, involving an initial sponge, two risings, and a proofing. Today, I thought I would try out James Beard’s “French-Style Bread” that simplified these tasks down to one single rising before baking (as found in Beard on Bread–the 2007 edition). As Mr. Beard points out in his introduction to the recipe, this basic bread could be referred to as “French-style,” “Continental,” or “Cuban bread,” which seems to be a way of saying “don’t be offended that I’ve made this dough into a baguette shape–I know it’s not really baguette, but it’s a good honest loaf and I like the shape.”

This sounded perfect to me. Cutting the recipe roughly in half (and playing around a little with the flours that I added), I dissolved 2 tsp. yeast and 1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar in 7 oz. water, and then added 1 1/2 tsp. salt, 9 oz.white wheat flour, and 2 oz. whole wheat flour. After a nice long knead, I had a very soft, supple dough. Although the recipe suggested a 1 1/2 to 2 hour rising time in a warm environment, I found a nice cool corner of my apartment where my dough could rise more slowly for a longer period of time. I knew I would be gone for at least a few hours, so I thought that a 58-60 degree environment would be ideal.

Unlike my deep-freeze refrigerator experiment, the time and temperature in this scenario conspired in my favor, and when I returned five hours later, I had a perfectly doubled dough ball hanging out at exactly 60 degrees–the yeast neither under nor over exhausted.

I deflated the dough, divided it in two, and–just for giggles–shaped one into a baguette, and one into a pain d’epi.

Because Beard’s simplified recipe skips the proofing stage, he instructs the recipe-follower to put the loaves into a cold oven, and then set the temperature to 400 degrees. In this way, the loaves get a brief and accelerated proofing as the oven warms, and then transition straight into baking. It took around 30 minutes from the time the loaves went into the cold oven to the time they emerged all nicely browned–at least half (if not more) of the time it would have taken for them to proof and then bake.

Touching and tasting these loaves revealed a few notable observations: first, that by skipping many of the rising and proofing stages of a true French bread, there was only a mild fermented flavor, and fewer air pockets in the crumb; second, that by starting with the loaves in a cold oven, the thick, crisp crust usually formed on a French bread when shoved into a piping hot oven was missing.

This being said, the bread was most delicious, if not entirely French. The crumb was as soft and supple on the tongue as the dough had been on my hands, and had a perfectly balanced chewiness. It was slightly more dense than a real French bread, as it lacked quite as many lofty air bubbles, but this only served to raise the crumb-to-topping ratio, and allowed the pleasantly mild yeasty flavor to make a bigger appearance in each bite. The versatility of the real baguette was definitely not lost on these loaves. Case in point: excellent vehicle for nutella:

So, Mr. Beard was very diplomatic in calling this a “French-style” loaf, and I consider it an excellent go-to recipe/formula when time is a precious commodity. If one could create a 50 degree environment, this dough would be a perfect contender for a “9 to 5” loaf. The decrease in temperature would allow for a couple more hours of fermentation without over-exhausting the yeast, and the loaves could be popped in the oven immediately upon arrival home–fresh bread ready just in time for dinner.

Thank you, James Beard!