Thursday, 29 September 2011

Catching up

I've been neglecting my blog of late. Which isn't to say that I've been neglecting my baking, but I have had a couple of struggles -- more about those anon.

Interesting things I've baked lately: I took a shot at baking baguettes using Peter Reinhart's Pain a la Ancienne method. This technique uses a very, very cold, very, very wet dough, and a tiny amount of yeast, and the dough is left for a very long time to allow the flavour to develop some proper complexity.

It was an interesting exercise in baking, and the baguettes themselves were perfectly fine -- after a fashion. However, I really struggled to shape the loaves, and so while they tasted fine, they didn't actually look great. And I do want my bread to look good as well as tasting good. After all, anticipation is an important part of eating.

I will try this recipe again, but I'll try it as foccacia or as a rough country loaf rather than as baguettes. Here's a couple of pictures from the bake:

A much more successful project, from my point of view, has been my attempt to create a poilane-style miche. The idea is to reproduce the loaves produced by the late Lionel Polaine, whose signature country-style hearth baked loaf (the miche) is widely regarded as possibly the best loaf in the world.

I've tried a couple of recipes, but I think the one that I liked the best -- and the one that I had most success with, has been the blogger, Shiao Ping's miche in honour of baker, Gerard Rubaud, the aptly named Gerard-Rubaud miche.

There were two things that were interesting to me about this loaf. All of my other breads had used a starter with a fairly high hydration -- generally 100% hydration. Also, I normally just take my starter out of the fridge, give it a quick refresh and I'm baking a few hours later.

The Gerard Rubaud miche, in contrast, uses a firm starter -- akin to the Italian style biga, rather than the more usual sponge type levain. And the starter is a multiple-grain biga, that's built slowly, a little over time, over about three days.

This is not a loaf for the person in a hurry.

You can find the recipe for the loaf linked above on Shiao Ping's blog, but the loaf contains wholewheat flour, rye, spelt and plain flour.

Here's a picture of my first attempt at the Gerard Rubaud miche. It tasted as good as it looked.

My baking hasn't all been plain sailing of late though. I bought a bag of bread flour from Tescos a few weeks ago, and it completely screwed with my baking. I couldn't get a decent loaf out of the whole bag. Every dough I made was overly sticky and never became workable. Every single loaf I made using that bag was inedible and ended up as compost. And what's more, I used it to refresh my starter, so the whole thing infected my motherdough.

I managed to refresh the whole thing out eventually, but the incident completely undermined my confidence in my ability to bake sourdough. I started adding a pinch of quick yeast to my loaves, just to be sure that the dough would be workable and would rise sufficiently.

This weekend, I was discussing my problems with the very helpful guys on Northwest Sourdough on their troubleshooting forum. [Note: the thread has now been moved. You can find it here. Ice and Theresa over there were particularly helpful to me in talking me though the process, and so as I was chatting with them, I decided I'd make a sourdough and post about it in real time. The people over there could give me feedback and we could talk about any issues as they came up.

I didn't need a whole lot of advice, but what I did get was the equivalent of a masterclass in sourdough baking. Firstly, I learned that my hydration calculations were wrong. That explains why my dough was always wetter than I expected it to be.

I also made a breakthrough in terms of my handling the dough -- stretching, folding, degassing, shaping. In the past, I've followed the YouTube videos on the subject, but I never really knew what the dough was supposed to feel like at the various stages. For me, that's been the biggest breakthrough. Everything that I read says that you have to be able to understand who the dough is supposed to feel at any given time. Unless someone actually shows you how to do it with a piece of dough that is good dough though, you've got no point of reference.

However, because I knew that my dough was good, I was finally able to get a handle on how it should feel at every stage. When I finished my loaf, it came out and was unquestionably the best loaf I'd ever baked. Everything about it was absolutely perfect from my point of view. Perfect crust, perfect crumb, great oven spring, fantastic taste. Moist with great keeping capabilities. Here are a couple of pictures:

I was shooting for a 64% hydration, but as my calculations were off, I ended up with a 70% hydration dough. In the past, I've not been taken with loaves of such high hydration. They've turned out tough, and ended up making terrible toast. This loaf was the exact opposite though. Tender, moist, perfect with butter and perfect toasted.

Here's a crumb shot:

And it tasted every bit as good as it looked. In fact, I've got one proving as I speak...