Over the past few weeks, I feel like Peter Reinhart and I have become kindred spirits. I have listened to him tell me about percentages, ratios, a bit of history of bread baking and the nuances from loaf to loaf and after one particularly striking story about a loaf of bread, I grew awfully excited and a tad nervous to bake the loaf he was telling a story about. It is a rustic white loaf and the story is amazing. I want to block quote it out of his book but honestly, the story is a couple of pages long and my college professors would hang their heads in shame and retroactively fail me and take away my degree if I committed such a sin so you will have to survive on my “cliff notes” version and read the full story in his book yourself.
Peter was in France on a trip he won after entering the best loaves of bread he had ever baked in the James Beard National Bread Competition in 1995 with a special sourdough bread recipe of his and the prize was being able to visit with one bread baker for five days. But instead, he was able to change the details of his prize to visit five bakers for one day each and on the tail end of his trip he was able to visit with a baker called Gosselin and took with him a baguette from a rival baker called Poilane.
During this prize trip of Peter’s, he learned how to make pain a l’ancienne – “prehaps the single most important thing, at least bread things that happened to [him] on this trip.” Gosselin is a younger baker, in his thirties and runs a bakery on rue Saint-Honore and he is the master of the pain a l’ancienne. While most bread bakers would expect the magic that makes the pain a l’ancienne to occur in the oven, it in fact depends on fermentation in a refrigerator. “The important difference between this dough and most others is that it is made by a delayed-fermentation technique caused by using ice-cold water to mix it, without yeast or salt, and then immediately refrigerating it.The dough is held overnight and then remixed with the yeast and salt and slowly awakened to begin its first, or bulk, fermentation.
In comparison to a baguette made by Raymond Calvel at a French bread seminar in Berkeley in 1994, this was the “best baguette [Peter] had ever had!”
Now, you can imagine the built-up anticipation, excitement and nerves all bouncing around inside when I turned to the page after the french bread (which we are all aware by now, how nervous I felt about that loaf! This, I assure you was about ten times worse, I’m talking beads of sweat!) and saw this was next! Should I skip it? I could come back to it, when I was feeling more confident! … But then I wouldn’t be sticking to my goal. I had planned to bake each loaf, as they appeared in the book until I reached the end of the book. Afterall, Hermione in Harry Potter said it the best “fear in a name only increases fear in the thing itself.” Well Hermione? I’m going to bake this loaf!
In fact, I look kind of like Hermione in this picture when I bake… although there is more bread and bread baking things around me and a couple open books rather than the Polyjuice potion supplies she has laid out in front of her…
Even considering the hesitation I had in baking this loaf of bread, I was pretty darn jazzed about using my new bread baking equipment! After baking last week’s loaves, I went ahead and ordered a dough scraper, dough rising bucket (it was becoming inhibiting to other baking projects to lose the use of a bowl for bread baking… ), a baker’s peel (so thrilled to get this!), a couche, and the baking stone I have wanted for some time! The stone is a thing of beauty and purchased from Williams-Sonoma, who sells a rectangular 14X16 inch baking stone, the largest that I could find. I even rinsed it right after unpacking it from its box and stuck it in the oven so that it could temper itself while I baked plenty of other things before the dough was ready to be baked itself on the stone.
There are things I am slowly getting better at, even only after baking three or four loaves of bread – such as kneading, and knowing what to expect of the dough at different stages. All of the information I read in the few chapters before the recipes appear are being put to use and I find myself re-reading parts of the first quarter of the book every week as I prepare to make the next new loaf. This loaf was particularly fragile, the most fragile of the loaves yet and I was determined not to de-gas it so I would have plenty of irregular holes in my finished loaf.
Pain a l’ancienne made into a ciabatta loaf is the most fun to make of the loaves so far. I felt like a seasoned bread baker as I prepared my ingredients, kneaded, proofed and shaped the loaf. This was also the first time I was able to use the SAF instant yeast that I had ordered. It is so much easier to use but I missed smelling the warm yeast as it puffed up and activated itself to become something delicious.
Prehaps the most tedious part of this loaf is the gentle, but iron-handed handling of the dough and waiting for time to pass. This loaf required a bit of time to prepare with the stretching, folding and resting before it went into the refrigerator to engorge itself. Using the dough scraper makes life a lot easier and picking up and stretching the dough much more pleasant. It is easier to avoid applying to much pressure or man-handling the dough, I’m very glad I bought one.
I was very excited to pull the dough out of the refrigerator and see that it had nearly doubled in size (as it should have) in the two days I left it in the fridge and because I remembered reading it somewhere in one of the two books of Peter’s that I have, I opened the lid on my dough bucket and pinched the air bubbles that had formed. Did I just commit a cardinal sin of bread baking??
I wasn’t certain, so I made an effort to resist popping the other air bubbles that formed on the loaves as they proofed some more. The dough required being brought out to room temperature three to four hours ahead of when you planned to bake the bread so that it could lose its chill and increase its size just a tad more – basically an unnoticeable amount of rise. Then came the fun part!
Splitting the dough in half with the dough scraper was fabulous fun in the sun for me! I don’t know why, it just was! I carefully stretched and folded the dough that slid easily out of my hands, like those old-time horror movies with a horrible title like “The Blob”… it was funny looking, but so soft and fragile and I took plenty of care not to de-gas it as much as possible. Once the dough was folded and shaped and had rested plenty on the bakers peel, it came time to bake them.
Hearth baking is something I am coming to enjoy. It is best done of a cold day, and today was no exception. I waited until late at night, when it would be the coldest part of the day and cranked up the oven. A part of me tingled with delight, knowing that my hard-working baking stone was warming itself up to help give a nice crust and crunch to my ciabatta loaves. My baker’s peel made me feel like I should have been wearing a white beret off to the side of my head, covered in a thin layer of flour from head to toe, donned in a long, white apron and shouting something like “mama mia!” or some other popular Italian phrase, as I used quick, jerky, sliding motions (dirty, I know.) to hoist the fragile loaves from the peel onto the stone and a few minutes later more of the quick, jerky, sliding motions to rotate the loaves. This at first presented itself as an issue because I grabbed oven mitts with the intention of grabbing the heavy stone and rotating it but then logic jumped in to save the day! Another reason why the peel is so handy (no pun intended) to have around! When my husband comes home, he is going to build me some contraption for the wall, a place where I can store my peel.
While the loaves were finishing their last little stint in the oven, I used paper towels to wipe down all of my bread baking equipment. None of it should be washed with soap, just water, if necessary, otherwise, just using the peel and dough bucket over and over again will help to develop the flavors of future loaves, just as the baking stone will become stronger, firmer and better tempered the more often it is used.
The loaves came out looking beautiful. Well, all except one heel of each loaf. I’m certain my oven temperatures are off a bit, as one side nearly burnt as it cooked, but the rotating helped to even that out. I can’t wait until m oven thermometer arrives, it will make bread baking a bit easier and I can avoid having this happen to future loaves. Rapping against the breast of each loaf prompted a dull, hollow thud. Perfection! Scooping up the loaves and setting them on a wire rack to cool, I couldn’t wait to slice into them! Once I did, there were perfect, irregular holes throughout the soft, fragile network inside the loaf and it tasted great! After a dinner of corn soup, I had another slice (or two), relishing all the work that went into making this loaf. I can’t wait until next week, I am going to be building a seed culture and mother starter, or sourdough/wild yeast starter for the loaf after the focaccia bread. In the meantime, I should probably decide what toppings I want to put on my focaccia…. until next time, happy baking!