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!

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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.

Semolina loaf

Well, Reny’s has me figured out. A giant wall of Bob’s Red Mill products nearly hit me in the face when I walked in, each sporting a very friendly little price tag. Who could resist in the face of such bounty?

I left with a big bag full of whole wheat flour, cornmeal, white rice flour, oat flour, soy flour and semolina flour. Semolina flour interested me in particular because of its high gluten content, a quality widely cherished by pasta-makers. I wanted to cherish this quality too, but with a little yeast thrown in the mix to expand the glorious network of glutenous strands into a loaf of bread, not a strip of linguini. I turned to Bob’s semolina bread recipe to get the basic gist of the proportions one uses when baking with semolina flour, and played around with the recipe to my liking. So, the recipe that follows is part Bob, part Nina.

To begin with, I made a small starter:

7 oz. water

3 oz. milk

2 tsp. yeast

7 oz. semolina flour

4 oz. white wheat flour

(I really wanted to throw a little dairy in this loaf to repeat the soft crumb of the ciabatta, plus I thought it would go nicely with the honey and butter that would soon be added to this rich dough.)

I let the starter do it’s thing for about 1.5 hours, although it could only have benefited from a longer fermentation.

Instead of using olive oil and granulated sugar, I melted together about 1.5 TB butter with 1.5 TB honey, let the mixture cool off a bit so as not to kill the little yeasties, and added it to my starter, along with 2 tsp. salt and about 5.5 oz. white wheat flour.

Kneading this dough was a treat. The fine texture of the semolina flour lent the dough a soft pliability that was most satisfying, and which yielded a little round ball that looked freakishly uniform.

I left my little dough ball to rise in a covered bowl. I was gone a little longer than I had anticipated, so the little guy was not so little by the time I returned home, and I quickly patted him down and stuck him in a loaf pan for a very brief proofing. After a 20-30 minute party in a 425 degree oven, things were shaping up nicely and a fragrant golden loaf emerged.

The first cut was ever-so satisfying–I could tell by the way the knife sliced through the loaf that both crust and crumb were tender and moist and light.

It’s hard to describe exactly what signals my taste buds sent to my brain when I nibbled at the first slice, but they were numerous and delightful. The milk, honey, butter and salt were in perfect balance in a toned-down-kettle-corn kind of way, while the yeastiness and the slightly nutty semolina provided a lovely flavor framework, not to mention a very pleasing texture. It was rich without being overwhelming, and moist without being dense. If I cut out the majority of the sweetener, this dough would make a very good base for an herbed bread, or perhaps dinner rolls. This bread is definitely one that I will be making again.

Thank you, Bob’s Red Mill! More flour experiments to come…