Sometimes you just want to get back to the basics. I did not want a fancy bread with numerous add-ons. All I wanted was bread with a nice crisp crust, moist interior with an open crumb. Easier said than done right? It was right about that time I had a call from a friend of mine who in the course of conversation claimed that she had eaten one of the best bread ever. “It is from some fancy bakery by some famous guy,” she said, “But it tasted ever so good”. Some close interrogation and investigation later (the police would have been proud of the way I went about it) I realised she was talking about Pain d’Ancienne made famous by Peter Reinhart. (There I go again with Peter Reinhart). I knew the recipe was there in the book I had, but I also remember dismissing it as misshapen baguettes.
It was time to go back and take a closer look at it. The technique was interesting. It was something I had used before but for a completely different reason. For this bread, Peter advises that we use ice-cold water to knead the dough. This will retard the yeast from developing too fast and help in maximising the flavour of the grain. I used to do this in the summer months in Chennai. When the temperature hits 40C, I would find the dough literally finishing its first rise in less than half hour. While most recipes would advise you to use warm water for the yeast, I used to take the liberty of using cold water, all in hope that the dough takes its time to go through the rising process. It did work. (I also used to try and find a cooler spot in the house for the dough) Little did I know that my bread was also getting tastier in the process.
This time around I wanted to try it exactly as the recipe demanded. The water was icy cold, replete with the ice cubes. The sticky dough went into the refrigerator overnight. Now all I had to do was wait and dream of crunchy bread and bread heaven. Getting up in the morning is easy when you have this kind of motivation. The instructions for the bread which followed seemed simple enough. Put the retarded (Not as in mentally) outside and just wait for it to double. And the best part, when the dough is ready, you don’t even have to attempt shaping it. You just need to pull it out into what might be considered baguette shape and slide it onto the oven. No need even for a second rise. Now if that is not simple enough, I don’t know what is!
Of course my scoring was not the greatest. The sticky dough sort of pulled at my blade and refused to co-operate. Somehow as the parchment paper with my loaves slid into the oven and the ice water created enough of a sizzling sound. I was prepared for what I hoped would be some fantastic bread. I could see the bread spring to life in the hot, steamy oven. Uh oh! the baguettes were now also starting to fuse together. The instructions explicitly said to leave enough room for expansion. Obviously I did not have enough faith in myself or the recipe to hope for the bread to expand like it did. Anyway, this was not something I could not fix. Once out, I just pulled the loaves apart. Simple as that.
Once out, I could see it was light and airy and had a lovely crust. As for the crumb, as much as I would have liked to tear into the bread right there and then, I decided to do it the right way and wait for the bread to cool. The aroma of freshly baked bread kept drawing me back to the kitchen, till I decided I had waited enough. The thin crust shattered as I bit into the bread and the insides were moist and chewy, with a subtle flavour of the wheat. Now I had bread which everyone would think I had slaved over and I did not even have to make an effort to shape it. Totally my kinda bread!
6 cups Bread Flour
2 1/4 tsp Salt
1 3/4 tsp Instant yeast
2 1/4 to 3 cups of Ice cold water
- Combine flour, salt, yeast and about 2 1/4 cups of water and knead (or mix) till it forms a sticky dough (So much easier in the machine where the dough is not going to stick to you hands and clothes). If the dough feels dry add a little water till you get a dough which will clear the sides of the bowl but will continue to stick to the bottom.
- Immediately transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover and place inside the refrigerator for the night. Your hard work is done for now.
- Take the dough out the next day and you will find that it has risen a bit but not doubled. So place the bowl on the kitchen counter and wait for it to double.
- About half hour before it hits the double mark, turn on your oven and pre-heat to the highest temperature your oven will allow. Mine is about 240C. Place your pizza stone for baking your bread and an empty pan for creating steam.
- When the dough has doubled turn it out gently on a well-floured counter making sure you do not remove all the air bubbles.
- Gently ( I cannot stress that enough) stretch it into a rectangle. If it is sticky dust with more flour.
- Using a wet bench scraper, divide the dough into about 6 baguettes. Let the scraper press down into the dough to divide the dough cleanly. Wet the scraper as often as you need to.
- Lightly stretch the dough as you place them on parchment sheets ready to be baked. You could slash the dough using a very sharp knife or blade, but mine refused to cooperate.
- Slide the parchment sheet onto the pizza stone and pour some ice-cold water into the pan by the side (or below) and close the door of the oven at once.
- After about 30 seconds spray the insides of the oven with more water (Please be careful about the pilot light and the glass)
- The bread should be golden and ready in about 20 minutes and the internal temperature should read at about 205 F
- Cool, the loaves of bread before biting into them.
Please note this bread does not have a second rise. If you are not going to bake them within an hour of shaping them, please return to the refrigerator and cover until the oven is ready for them. If you do not have a pizza stone, you could bake it on a cookie sheet lined with parchment.
The crust will get soft as the bread cools. All you need to do to get it crisp again is to pop it into a hot oven for about 5 minutes to get the crust crunchy and the crumb moist. Now, what is the science? The cold mixing and fermentation delays the activation of the yeast, till the amylase has started converting the starch to sugar. So when the yeast actually starts working (the next day) it can feed off the sugar which would not have been available earlier and there will be a reserve sugar available to caramelize the crust and bring out the full flavour of the grain. There you have it!