It’s commonly said that cooking is an art and baking is a science. And that’s pretty true; baked goods are a lot less forgiving when it comes to temperature, ingredient ratios and even minor tweaks to key ingredients. I’ve had many baking flops in which “I’ll just use this instead” ends in cookies that melt together, bread loaves that don’t rise, and cakes that taste awful. This bread takes the science side of bread to it’s logical extreme, with great results.
The basic concepts of how bread works are pretty simple. Leavened bread relies on two things: gluten and yeast. Wheat flour has a lot of gluten in it, which is “developed” when you knead it; the long strands of gluten get jumbled up into stretchy webs of a sort, which is what gives the bread its crusty outside, chewy insides, and the elasticity it needs to rise. Yeast, the other primary ingredient in leavened bread, feeds on the sugars in bread and produces CO2 (yeast farts!). These CO2 bubbles get trapped in the glutinous dough, which stretches and forms air pockets (kind of like a balloon. If you let it rise for long enough this process will keep going until the bubbles get big enough that they burst through the gluten web and the dough deflates. When you bake bread, you essentially freeze the rising action by solidifying the structure of the bread and killing the yeast.
Pain a l’Ancienne relies on an exaggerated version of this process — along with slow fermentation practices, to produce more flavorful, crusty bread. The dough is relatively wet, which provides a great environment for long, stretchy gluten molecules to form. It starts with ice water, which keeps the yeast from “waking up” while you hydrate the flour, and continues with a night in the fridge to keep temperatures low. Very slowly, the yeast start doing their thing, at which point the starches in the flour have broken down into easy to eat (for yeast) sugars. In a nutshell: in theory, you can get the maximum amount of flavor with this method.
Basically, this bread has all the floppiness of ciabatta, but with the attempted shaping of a baguette. It wasn’t easy to work with at all, and I ended up with three very deflated-looking dough blobs. Not exactly appetizing. To put it nicely, they baked up looking extremely rustic. However…
They tasted great! The crumb was moist and creamy, and they had a nice crusty exterior. The flavor was well-developed and wheaty, much like a traditional baguette. And much like a baguette, they don’t last long. They’re awesome on the first two days, but after that they’re best for feeding ducks at the pond.
I’m not sure if I’ll make this Pain a l’Ancienne again. It was really fussy to work with, and while the results were delicious, I wouldn’t say that the pain-in-the-butt process of making them was worth it compared to other recipes that I like just as much. It was a fun exploration in the science behind bread, and I’d recommend every ambitious bread baker try it…once!
Because I didn’t love this recipe– and because I didn’t make any changes to the original — I’m not posting the recipe for Pain a l’Anciennce. Buuuut I’ll be back next week with more recipes and some fun experiments in the kitchen. 🙂