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.

I’m spent–from beer comes bread

Beer brewing and bread making are curiously similar. I like to think of brewers as extra patient bread makers who prefer to drink their loaves out of big cups. We both start with water, starch and yeast, and both have one primary flavor addition (hops and salt, respectively). We both extract sugars from our starches, apply heat, encourage fermentation, experiment with new ingredient additions and techniques, and practice a great deal of patience as our products mature. Brewers end up with liquid bread after waiting serenely for what feels like a terribly long time before being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and bakers end up with really thick beer after enduring mere days or even hours of patient waiting. Although I do enjoy a good brew, I much prefer my starch-water-and-yeast medley on a plate with a nice little pat of butter or cheese, and I’m happy to leave the careful calculating and weeks of patient waiting to those who really know what they’re doing. That being said, I’m also really curious about the ways in which the bread and beer making processes can inform and contribute to one another. Having already tried putting beer in bread, much to the delight of my taste buds, I figured that it couldn’t hurt to put some of the by-products of beer into my bread and hope for the same tasty results.

I called up my friendly family brewer extraordinaire and hinted that a bounty of spent grains would be much appreciated. Armed with a fragrant container full of spent malted barley and some helpful advice from a fellow blogger (beerevolution), I set to work drying and grinding (read: pulverizing) my grains to make them a bit less bulky and chewy.

My only method of grinding was via my coffee grinder, and, incorrectly assuming this piece of equipment to be cute and demure, pushed the grind button with great enthusiasm. Not only did I turn my grains into something closely resembling peat moss, but crunchy chunks of grain flew literally everywhere.

Not to be deterred by the crunch underneath my feet or the fluff in my bowl, I forged ahead and mixed some ingredients together that I thought would nicely complement the residual malted barley flavor and texture. First I combined 12 oz. lukewarm water with 2 TB molasses and 2 1/4 tsp. yeast. I tossed in all of my ground barley (which had reduced in weight and bulk quite significantly after the oven roasting and coffee grinding debacle, ending up at a whopping 4.25 oz.) I added 3 TB melted butter, 1 TB vital wheat gluten for extra kicks, 2 tsp. salt, and roughly 18 oz. white wheat flour. The dough turned a beautiful deep brown from the molasses and the grains, and was very dense even after a good long kneading session. Luckily some larger flecks of ground malted barley remained and speckled my dough quite prettily.

After about two hours, my dense little dough ball had doubled into a nice big blob.

This I shaped into a boule and let proof for about another hour. Because this dough was so dense due to the added grain, I should probably have shaped it into two smaller loaves–I later found that it took quite a while for this big guy to cook through. Not knowing that a terribly agonizing wait of nearly an hour of baking time awaited me (how do you have such patience, brewers?), I stuck my loaf into a 425 degree oven and waited impatiently to see how it would turn out. I pulled the lovely boule out of the oven a little prematurely in my impatient state, and ended up putting it back in to finish up once I realized my blunder, but not before I managed to slice off a steaming and deliciously moist piece upon which I happily munched while awaiting the final bake.

I loved the color of the loaf and the heartiness of the texture and flavor. I felt like I should have popped open a can of beans and sung some ol’ camp cookie songs.

The malted barley, although already having been processed for beer, still retained some body and a nice little hint of flavor–not only the classic malted taste, but I thought I also detected a very mild and pleasant bitterness. The texture of the grain was really quite satisfying, with crunchy moments puncturing the soft, chewy, moist crumb. The butter and molasses chimed in with a delicate harmony and the whole thing was very nice with a slather of additional butter. I think, considering the density of this loaf, that it was wise to avoid using the spent grains when they were still fully hydrated–I can only image how much more dense it would have been. This is definitely an eat-me-immediately bread that hardens up after a day or two, but fresh out of the oven I rather enjoyed it. I’m definitely intrigued enough to continue experimenting with spent grains, and perhaps one day I’ll throw some hops in there and really make a beer loaf.

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!

My “workin’ 9 to 5” rustic loaf

It’s difficult to plan a good loaf of bread around your work day. Quick breads are all well and good, but lack the depth of flavor and complexity of texture that a loaf gets when given ample fermentation time. Since most folks only have a couple of hours between the time they arrive home and the time their tummies start grumbling, ample fermentation time is not exactly an option unless the bread is intended as a midnight snack.

Enter alarm clock and refrigerator.

If your morning self is willing to rise an extra half hour early, your evening self will be most pleased. The basic premise is as follows: you summon all of your energy to knead a few ingredients together in the wee hours of the morning, stick the resulting doughy mass in the fridge, proceed to work, do your work, return home, pull the dough out of the fridge where it has been fermenting at a slow-ish rate for a long-ish time, let the dough enjoy some balmier temperatures for an hour or two, and bake said dough into a fragrant loaf just in time for dinner.

Since my “9 to 5” is more like a “6 to 2,” I found that my brain was a bit more muddled than I would have liked it to be when I rose extra early this morning. In my delirium I threw ingredients into my bowl willy-nilly and ended up with the following mixture:

5 oz. water (I was hoping to make a very small loaf, as I have ample bread stores at the moment)

1/2 tsp. yeast

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

2-ish tsp. chopped rosemary

a dash of olive oil

a couple small spoonfuls of my sourdough starter for good measure (added not for its leavening abilities, but because I figured a tiny dose of this potent concoction would help boost my loaf’s flavor)

2 oz. whole wheat flour

9-10 oz. white wheat flour

After kneading the dough much like I imagine a zombie would knead–eye’s glazed over, arms stretched out, mouth agape–I popped the whole thing in the fridge and headed to work.

Ideally, my dough would have experienced a little more action by the time I had returned home, but as I remembered upon opening my refrigerator door, this fridge loves to go into deep freeze mode no matter how much you fiddle with the little dial. This meant that I had to let the dough spend a bit more time frolicking in warmer temperatures before I baked it, which would have thrown off my estimated dinner time, had I been a true 9-5-er. In a perfect world, my dough would have approximately doubled over an 8 hour period in a not-too-cold fridge (according to the authors of Bread Alone, a 50 degree environment would be ideal–somewhere between a fridge and a frugally kept house temperature). As it was, I let the dough come up to temperature for nearly 2 hours before shaping it and letting it proof for another half hour to an hour. I then brushed it with olive oil and baked it at around 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Although my time-table was a bit altered due to my enthusiastic fridge, a lovely and very fragrant rustic rosemary loaf popped out just in time for dinner.

The crust was thick and crunchy, and in high proportion to the moist, rosemary-infused interior.

A rustic herbed loaf with a high crust to crumb ratio just begged to be eaten with a hearty stew. Having been sent home last night with a big tub of delicious lentil veggie soup (thanks Mom!), I was able to provide the bread with its perfect complement.

Although this recipe/time formula could definitely use some tweaking, I was able to bake a well-fermented loaf on a work day without bringing my bowl of dough to work with me, as tempting as that might have been. Perhaps a national bring-your-bread-to-work day is in order.