Monday, June 1, 2009

Pain a l'Ancienne

So the weekend bread baking went smashingly for once... you can see the photo set here... not much in the way of catastrophes... and some really fabulous bread at the end. I ended up just doing the full recipe for 6 baguettes, even thought that's clearly too much bread for 2 people...  in part to get the practice of baking and shaping them, but mainly because our scale only does fractions and thus halving/thirding formulas can be difficult. We ate what we wanted and froze the rest for making sandwiches.

As I mentioned in the planning post, a full write up of this recipe is easily found online, so I won't bother to transcribe it here... just give my thoughts and what I learned.

Hand kneading is fun! We don't have a stand mixer, and it seemed to me that 6 cups of flour was a little much for our food processor's motor, so I didn't have much of a choice, but I'm still glad I did it. Figuring I couldn't over knead it I did ten minutes(hard work!) of the "use your hand like a dough hook while the very wet dough stays in the bowl that you turn" technique. I thought it worked pretty well and it was, as I said, pretty fun. I did have to keep dipping my hand in water every minute or so to keep the dough manageable, but that also seemed to also keep the glop on my hands to a minimum.

Anna did all the shaping, but it appeared straightforward as the directions were fairly clear. There are two things I should comment on, however. First, don't use as much cornmeal as you see pictured above. It was entirely too much, and you just end up with a thick coating of cornmeal on the bottom of your bread that you have to brush off (and it won't all come off). Next time I probably won't use any, or just a small amount... after all you put it on parchment paper, so why do you even need cornmeal? Second, the directions tell you to cover the second batch while you are cooking the first... but they don't tell you that until the near the end of the recipe for some reason, so it's easy to forget (I did). They will continue to proof, especially next to a 500 degree oven, so it's a good idea to try and remember.

As far as baking... we had a mini disaster trying to slide the parchment off the sheet pan onto the baking stone, as one just fell right onto the stone. We did manage to salvage it, but it was pretty sad looking afterwards. My advice is to get someone to help you. Pull out the rack with the baking stone and then have them lift the paper as you hold the pan down close to the stone. That worked for us anyway.

The "double steam" baking approach seemed effective.  I don't know the chemistry off the top of my head, but the basic idea is that commercial ovens make awesome bread because they can inject steam at the push of a button during the initial stages of baking to aid in formation of a crisp crust. To try and emulate that, Reinhart has you put in a heavy pan on a rack in the oven that you then pour simmering water into right after you put in the bread. I put the broiler pan at the top of the oven instead of under the baking stone, simply because I thought it would be easier to pour water into it without losing as much heat from the oven. Keeping the water simmering is kind of a pain, but a tea kettle would be perfect in this regard... unfortunately I didn't think of it, and Anna suggested it too late to make a difference. But if you have a tea kettle, then, uhm, use it. The second steaming technique is using a squirt bottle to spray warm water on the oven walls in thirty second intervals a few times. As we have no light bulbs or glass in our oven, it wasn't particularly hazardous and oddly satisfying.

I also discovered that our oven cooks very unevenly... at least with the baking stone in. Even rotating the parchment paper 9 minutes into baking (a pretty awkward endeavor) didn't stop the baguettes at the front from finishing first. I'm guessing that since I push the stone all the way to the back of the oven, that blocks a lot of the hot air from the bottom, forcing it to the front. I should probably center it more, or try to rotate the bread more than once during cooking.

All in all, it was definitely my best bread baking effort to date. The bread was fantastic and the experience of making it was quite a bit of fun... probably not least because Anna participated this time. So I highly recommend both the recipe and baking it with a loved one. Good luck!

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