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!