Pain à l’Ancienne

by Janice on October 20, 2009

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Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge Pain à l’Ancienne is a challenging bread for some people.  Specifically me.  I like to eat bread that comes from wet dough (crispy, crunchy, airy, and chewy), but I’m not so good at handling the sticky wet stuff.  So I approached this bread as though it needed kid gloves.  And it did.  But apparently I bought the Target kid gloves and it prefers the Bloomingdale’s version.  All kidding aside, in order to make this bread turn out the way I want it, I will need a lot more practice with wet dough.  It turned out okay, but we all know how I feel about just okay bread.  I think I’ve made myself clear on that.

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As you can plainly see, I’m not so good at transferring wet dough to the baking sheet.  You know how a cat can become 15 pounds of over-cooked spaghetti when you try to pick it up?  Not a single ounce of stiffness or support?  That’s kind of what this dough is like.  Pick up the ends and the middle sags and stretches to infinity, like a liquid slinky.  And all the while, you’re trying like mad to touch the dough oh-so-gently, so as not to deflate the coveted trapped gas bubbles.  Because if you squish any of those gas bubbles, your bread will not have the giant airy holes that bakers stay up at night praying for.

If not for all that drama, this would be a simple-to-make, fascinating, and incredibly complex-tasting bread.  The ingredients are just water, yeast, salt and flour.  Ice-cold water, in fact.  Which probably breaks every rule you’ve ever heard regarding bread baking, but that little difference is what makes the bread taste so complex.  Peter Reinhart devotes an entire paragraph to the explanation of this delayed-fermentation process, and why it makes the dough so unique.  Most of you don’t love me enough to sit through all that here.  But if you have any interest in what makes such basic ingredients taste so nutty and sweet, I encourage you to buy the book.

In the final result, my bread was not as airy and filled with giant holes as I would like.  The flavor was better than I could have imagined, though, so it’s likely I will try again, and again.  I don’t think this is a skill that’s going to happen overnight, while the dough sits in the refrigerator developing that great flavor.  (The dark brown loaves had the best flavor of all.)  And some people think this is the easiest bread in the book.  So I encourage you to try it, and then leave me comments with all your tips.  I can really use the help!

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