Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Baking Resolution

I found a scrap of paper the other day with a message scribbled on it: New Year's Resolution... Bake More Bread. It may not seem life altering, but I figured this resolution would be a joy to keep. Well, as so often happens, life has gotten in the way, and I haven't fired up my oven as often as I'd like.

I have been lusting after the recipe for Pain a l'Ancienne ever since I first pored over the pages of the Bread Baker's Apprentice. The photos were pure food porn: rustic, rough-shaped baguettes with a golden, flour-dusted crust, and a creamy white crumb full of holes. So I decided if ever there was a bread to get me baking again, this was it.

As much as I aspired to bake the Pain a l'Ancienne, I also felt intimidated by it. PR describes in detail the enzymatic pathways and other scientific underpinnings that makes this bread so delicious, and so unique. I suspected I would have to understand exactly what was going on at the molecular level in order to make the bread come out right. So I flashed back to my days as a biology student and started anxiously memorizing terms -- amylase, delayed fermentation -- as if I was studying for a midterm. But after some reading, it became clear that this bread didn't require a PhD. All it really needed was lots of time. And a shot of icy cold water.

Like other rustic doughs, this one is gooey, sticky and just plain wet. Given my previous difficulties with wet dough, I was a little concerned that this one would end up stretched out and stuck all over the kitchen. But loads of flour everywhere -- on the counter, on my hands and heaped on top of the dough -- helped prevent any major sticking.

The shaping stage is quite easy because the goal is a very rustic and free form baguette. You just cut the dough into equal pieces, and stretch into an oblong shape that fits the back of a sheet pan. Again, I took extra precautions to prevent sticking; I lined the sheet pans with parchment and then sprinkled them with corn meal.

At this point I was a bit thrown because I didn't realize there wasn't a proofing stage. The loaves had to cool their heels for a bit, since my oven wasn't ready just yet. I think the extra time might have done them good, because they were so flat (they resembled very tired looking snakes) that I feared they would get no rise and I would have flatbread baguettes on my hands. PR mentions that if you let the loaves sit for long, they will start to behave more like ciabatta. I presume this means they will have more open, irregular holes. I'm not sure exactly where one draws the line between Pain a l'ancienne and ciabatta, but as you can see, I had holes a plenty.

PR suggests that slashing may be skipped, if the dough is too soft. I couldn't resist wielding my trusty lame, though as you can see, it wasn't all that successful. (They now look like tired snakes that are starting to peel back their skins. Eww.)

I am so glad I rung in the new year with pain a l'ancienne. It's like the platonic ideal of french bread. Not that my loaves were perfect, mind you, but in them I could taste the promise of perfection. Each baguette had a crackly golden crust, and a nutty sweet flavor - all thanks to the delayed fermentation method which PR borrowed from Parisian baker Philippe Gosselin.

Now for that second new year's resolution: bake neater.

Baking Notes:

--The loaves baked up so quickly that some of them came out as crispy as giant breadsticks. Not bad, but not baguettes. Next time, I will check them for doneness after only about ten minutes.

-- As PR notes, this would indeed make a fantastic pizza crust. I'll try that next time, when I've got a lot of lead time for planning a pizza party.