I might be a bread geek, or there’s a very good chance that I’m in the process of becoming one. By bread geek, I mean that I’m fascinated with all things related to baking bread not that I have any expertise in baking it. I received a review copy of 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, and the author’s goal made perfect sense to me. William Alexander set out to bake a loaf of peasant bread each week for a year with the hope of figuring out how to make perfect bread. Along the way, he sought out experts in everything from baking to yeast to milling and learned about bread from every angle. I was intrigued by that information shared throughout the book. He started by questioning why most flour is enriched and learned about why the vitamins were added and that added malted barley assists yeast in feeding on sugars in the flour. Then, he moved on to questioning the chlorine in the tap water he was using. He learned about conditioning the dough, or an autolyse, which involves letting the dough and the glutens in it rest before being kneaded. And, then he learned about sourdough or levain. My sourdough starter is my hard-working buddy who has been helping with my bread baking for over a year now. So, I was geekily thrilled when he started baking with sourdough. He does go a couple of steps further than even I would when he grows his own wheat and sets out to build his own bread oven. Although, I’d love to have a bread oven if someone else built it. He explains the bread baker’s percentage which I previously didn’t know. The details and trials and tribulations are entertainingly described with plenty of self-deprecating humor. I won’t reveal the end of the story, but I will say that ultimately the journey was about more than just baking bread. It was about setting a goal, becoming immersed in it, and learning more than you ever thought you would in trying to attain it.
At the end of the book, there’s a description for how to make a levain and four bread recipes. I attempted the Pain au Levain Miche. Alexander explains that this is a very wet dough that will flatten out on the peel. For me, it not only flattened, it stuck like glue to the peel. It was a misshapen, flat, ugly dough pile by the time I got it into the oven. It’s in my freezer now, but it’s destined to become croutons or possibly just breadcrumbs. Next, I tried the Pain de Campagne, and that’s the bread pictured here. It’s made from levain, or sourdough starter, bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, salt, a tiny bit of commercial yeast, and water. The dough ingredients were mixed and left to autolyse for 25 minutes. I used my mixer with a dough hook to do the kneading after that. With a mixer, it was only kneaded for about three minutes. Then, the dough was left in an oiled bowl to ferment for five hours. After it had risen, the dough was set on a floured surface and shaped into a boule. I placed it in my bread proofing basket, covered it with plastic, and refrigerated it overnight. It could have just sat for another two hours before being baked. The next morning, I removed the dough from the refrigerator while the oven heated to 500 degrees F. Following the recipe instructions, I placed a cast iron skillet on the bottom of the oven. After slashing the loaf and loading it into the oven, one cup of water was poured into the skillet. Wear an oven mitt when adding the water. The hot steam rises immediately. The oven temperature was reduced to 480 degrees F, and the bread baked for 25 minutes. The oven temperature was reduced again to 425 degrees F, and the bread baked for another fifteen minutes or so. It should reach an internal temperature of 210 degrees F. Then, the oven was turned off, and the bread remained in it for a few more minutes before being cooled on a rack.
I had much better luck with the second loaf. The dough wasn’t sticky, and I had no problems sliding it onto the baking stone from the peel. It came out of the oven crunchy crusted and not too densely crumbed. The flavor was very good, and the whole wheat and rye flours gave it good character. In the past, I’ve used a spray bottle to spritz the oven for steam, but I may now be a convert to the hot skillet with water method. Reading this book was a lot of fun, and I learned things about bread baking science along the way. Now that I’ve been introduced to the bread baker’s percentage and learned more about hydration levels of doughs, I’m inspired to learn more and add to the weight of my bread bookshelf.
recipe re-printed with publisher’s permission
Peasant Bread (Pain de Campagne)
52 Loaves by William Alexander
For the levain:
130 grams all-purpose flour
130 grams water
For the dough:
260 grams levain
400 grams unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
60 grams whole wheat flour
30 grams whole rye flour
13 grams salt
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast (also called bread-machine, fast-acting, or RapidRise yeast)
292 grams water (at room temperature)
1. At least two hours before beginning (you can do this the night before), feed the levain as follows: Remove from the refrigerator and add equal parts flour and room-temperature water (I use about 130 grams each, which replenishes what I'll be using in the bread). Stir well, incorporating oxygen, and leave on the countertop with the cover slightly ajar. The starter should be bubbling and lively when you begin your bread.
2. Place a large mixing bowl on a kitchen scale and add each ingredient in turn using the Tare button to zero out the scale between additions. Mix thoroughly with a wet hand until the dough is homogenous. Cover and leave the dough to autolyse for about 25 minutes.
3. Remove the dough to an unfloured countertop and knead by hand for seven to nine minutes (or if you insist, you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook for two to three minutes) until the dough is elastic and smooth. During the first minutes of kneading, a metal bench scraper is useful to scoop up te wet dough that clings to the countertop.
4. Clean out the bowl (no soap, please), mist with oil spray, and replace the dough, topping with a piece of oiled plastic wrap. Ferment at room temperature (68-72 degrees F) for four to five hours.
5. Remove the dough, which should have risen by about half, to a lightly floured countertop and gently press into a disk about one inch high. Form a boule by gathering the sides into the center, creating surface tension, then place seam side up in a colander covered with a well-floured linen napkin. Return the plastic wrap atop the dough and set aside to proof. Meanwhile, place a pizza stone in the lower third of the oven and an old cast iron skillet or pan on the bottom shelf. Preheat the oven to at least 500 degrees F.
6. After one and a half to two hours, carefully turn the loaf onto a baker's peel that has been liberally sprinkled with rice flour or cornmeal. Sprinkle the top of the loaf with rye or rice flour (not white flour, which turns brown) to get that country "dusted" look.
7. Make several symmetrical slashes (grngnes) with your lame or single-edged razor.
8. Immediately slide the loaf onto the stone and add one cup water to the skillet (wear an oven mitt), minimizing the time the oven door is open. Reduce oven temperature to 480 degrees F.
9. After 20 to 25 minutes, or when the loaf has turned dark brown, reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees F.
10. Continue baking until the loaf registers 210 degrees F in the center (about 50 to 60 minutes total) with an instant-read thermometer, or until a rap on the bottom of the loaf produces a hollow, drumlike sound. Return the bread to the oven, with the oven off, for about 15 minutes. Allow the bread to cool on a rack at least two hours before serving.
I’m submitting this to Yeastspotting where you’ll find some seriously well-made bread.