If Michigan Football’s helmets could be conceptualized as a loaf of bread, it would hands down be Pain a l’Ancienne. Nothing flashy or over the top, but simply the best. Replace Maize and Blue with flour, water, yeast, and salt and you’ve got one of the easiest and most delicious breads you will ever make.
When I started to make bread a few years ago I was surprised (and a bit skeptical) of how much you could really do with just four ingredients. You can cram taste into different enriched breads (brioche for example) using fats (see: Asiago Herb and Garlic Bread) and other flavors, but if you want to stick to basic ingredients you’ve got to let science and time do the work for you.
Pain a l’Ancienne is a bread I first made from the Peter Reinhart book Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and what I love about it is that it shows just how much you can do with so little. By fermenting the bread in a cold environment you ensure the slowest rise possible and in turn let the yeast create the most flavor. It also requires very little handling of the dough once you mix/knead to begin and is thus perfect for new bakers since there is no need to worry about improperly shaping or rolling the dough. A friend asked me to make some bread for a potluck this weekend, so that provided the perfect excuse to make some.
This is a two day recipe, best started after dinner the night before you plan to bake. For those fancy full employed folks out there, probably best to tackle this one on the weekend. You’ll have to forgive the lack of pictures. Without someone to take pictures for me at the moment while I’m baking (and lacking a decent camera other than my phone) I could choose only so many points to take them.
Combine your flour, yeast (must be instant because of the cold water), salt, and 19 oz of (ice cold) water into a stand mixer and mix on low speed for about 2 minutes. Swap the paddle attachment out for a dough hook and keep at it for about 5 more minutes. This will be a wet dough, and it will stick to the bottom. It should not however stick to the sides while kneading. Add flour/water as needed to make this happen. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover and toss it in the fridge overnight.
2-3 hours before you plan to bake the bread take your dough out so that it can come to room temperature (leave it in the bowl though).
Make sure your work surface is very well floured and carefully transfer the dough onto it. The key here is to degas the dough as little as possible, so be gentle! Flour the top of the dough and your hands as well and work the dough into a 6×8 inch rectangle. Once that’s done, use a sharp wet knife (or pastry scraper if you’ve got one) to cut the dough half width-wise.
Let the dough sit for a minute, and in the meantime prep your oven. Another way to get flavor, crust, and great color on your bread is of course the way you cook it. Fancy professional ovens will actually have steam injectors in them to help create moisture and a solid crust. This may shock you, but in my 80 or so square feet of kitchen, I do not have a professional oven. But never fear, there are ways to substitute! For what is called ‘hearth’ baking place an empty pan (I use a 9 inch cake pan) on the lower rack, a baking stone on the top rack, and heat your oven to 500° (or 550 if it goes that high). When we start baking we will fill the pan with water to create some steam.
Take one of the dough halves and cut it into 3 equal pieces (length wise, you’ll get three baguette shaped pieces).
Flip a baking sheet over and cover it with parchment paper, and carefully lift each of the pieces onto it. This is going to act as a poor man’s pizza peel (which ironically enough I have). As you lift, gently stretch the dough so that it is almost the length of the baking sheet.
Score the dough three times (like you would a baguette) and when the oven is hot slide them (parchment too) into the oven. Pour a cup of hot water into your steam pan and close the oven. 30 seconds later open it up and spray water on the oven walls to create more steam (see note below). Do twice more at 30 second intervals. After that turn the oven down to 475 and bake for 10 minutes. Give the bread a turn to ensure even baking and let them go for another 10-15 minutes.
Once done let them cool and enjoy! This bread is so light and airy you will have to make sure you don’t eat an entire loaf at once.
A note regarding spraying your oven walls: I purchased a cheap spray bottle but if your oven has a light and the water is sprayed on or too close to the bulb, it will most likely shatter, probably getting glass/filament in your delicious bread and also scaring the crap out of you (well that’s what happened to me). So I’d recommend one of two things…
1) Take out the bulb and spray water freely into the oven walls.
2) Set your spray bottle to a small jet of water (rather than the wide mist) and direct it toward the front of the oven walls away from your lightbulb.
Pain a l’Ancienne
- 6 cups (27 oz) bread flour
- 1 3/4 teaspoons instant yeast
- 2 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 19 to 24 ounces ice cold water
In a stand mixer combine flour, yeast, salt, and 19 oz cold water. Mixed for 2 minutes on low using the paddle attachment and then knead for 4-5 minutes using the dough hook. The dough will be tacky and should stick to the bottom. Immediately place in a lightly oiled container and refrigerate overnight.
The following day take the dough out 2-3 hours prior to baking to allow it to come to room temperature. Prepare the oven for hearth baking by preheating to 500° and placing a cake pan on the lower rack and a baking stone above.
Gently turn the dough out onto a well floured surface and carefully work into a 6×8 inch rectangle. Cut the dough in half width-wise and cut each half into 3 pieces length-wise. Line the back of a baking sheet with parchment paper and transfer three of the dough pieces to the sheet, stretching the dough as you do this.
Once the oven is heated slide the loaves (still on the parchment) onto the stone and pour 1 cup of hot water into the pan. Close the oven door, and after 30 seconds open again and spray water onto the oven walls. Repeat after another 30 seconds. Lower the oven temperature to 475° and bake for 10 minutes. If baking unevenly rotate at this point. Continue to bake for 10-15 minutes more. The loaves will take about 1 hour to cool completely.
Recipe courtesy of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.