For those of you wondering why there was no bread (or any other baked good) last week, I apologize: my oven died. It wasn’t the quick and painless death you would hope for, either; it was a slow and agonizing decline, following a sudden illness (electrical fire) that occurred on Thanksgiving Day 2010.  Let’s share a moment of silence for my poor, dead oven.

Thank you.

Now, take a look at my NEW, BEAUTIFUL oven!  We brought her home last Friday. We’re so proud. I am able to resume the 2012 Bread Challenge.

This week’s recipe is one for French Country Bread (Pain de Campagne), which is as simple and rustic as bread gets – flour, water, yeast, salt. The most interesting part of the recipe – and what attracted me to it – was the use of a poolish. Authentic French bread requires a poolish, which is a starter made from the same ingredients as the dough, but is left to develop for a long time. Traditionally, poolish is left overnight, but this recipe allows for brief poolish development (as little as two hours) if you need to get this bread done in a hurry. The poolish is then incorporated into the rest of the ingredients, and mixed to a dough. Poolish imparts flavor, and improves the gluten development of the dough.

This was a great recipe to add to my repertoire. But, as is often the case with yeast breads, this recipe is extremely time-consuming. Two rises of at least two hours each, plus a couple rest periods.  Oh, and did I mention that my new oven has a proof feature???  Yep. With one touch of a button, my oven creates the perfect atmosphere for rising yeast breads. I didn’t even know the oven had this feature when we bought it. My mind was blown.

As always, my comments and adjustments are in blue. Recipe and photos after the jump.

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Pain de Campagne (French Country Bread) – you can find a printable version here

Yield: 2 loaves

Ingredients

For the Poolish:

  • ½ teaspoon instant yeast
  • ½ cup warm water (110°F)
  • ¾ cup whole wheat flour

For the Dough:

  • 2 ½ cups warm water
  • ½ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 6 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal for dusting

Directions

To make the sponge, whisk the ½ teaspoon yeast in ½ cup warm water. Stir in the whole wheat flour until the mixture resembles a thick batter. Beat for about 100 strokes to form longs strands of gluten. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and let sit at room temperature for 2 to 8 hours (longer is better for flavor development). You can also let the poolish ripen in the refrigerator for 12 to 15 hours, bringing it back to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe. I accidentally left my poolish in the refrigerator for slightly longer than 24 hours (I was having some math trouble). I covered it loosely with plastic wrap. Seemed to work out fine!

When the poolish is ready, it will be bubbly and loose, with a yeasty, sour aroma. Scrape the poolish into a bowl and stir in the 2 ½ cups water and the remaining ½ teaspoon yeast. Stir well to combine. Add the bread flour 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition, until the dough becomes too difficult to stir.

Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and knead for 10 to 12 minutes, adding more flour only when the dough becomes too sticky to handle. Sprinkle the salt over the dough and knead it for an additional 5 to 7 minutes. The dough should have a smooth surface and spring back to the touch. Shape the dough into a round and cover with a damp cloth for 5 to 10 minutes. I needed to add more flour – almost an additional cup – in order to get the dough to even begin to stick together. I did resist the temptation to add more than that, though. I learned my lesson.

Sticky dough.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turning to coat the surface of the dough with oil. Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let it rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 2 to 3 hours. I used my oven’s proof feature here. Worked great!

Deflate the dough and cut it into two pieces. Shape the dough into two rounds, cover them with plastic or a damp cloth, and allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

Shape the dough into baguettes. Place a heavily floured cloth on a baking sheet, arranging a fold down the center to separate the loaves. Place the loaves, seam-side up, on the floured cloth. Dust the tops of the loaves with flour, cover with a damp towel, and let rise until doubled in bulk again, about two hours.

Resting comfortably on a bed of flour

Preheat oven to 375°F. Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal. Gently transfer the risen loaves to the baking sheet, placing them seam-side down on the cornmeal. Make several diagonal slashes in the loaf with a serrated knife or razor blade.

Immediately place the scored loaves in the preheated oven. Bake the bread until the loaves are golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Cool the loaves on wire racks.

The finished product!

Results:

  • Overall, pretty great. But, I’ll say it again: set aside an entire day to make the bread. Plus the fermentation time, starting the day before. The good news? You can get your laundry done while you’re doing all that waiting.
  • The bread has a fantastic chewy texture overall: you have to do a little work to get through the crust, but in the best possible way. It’s like the baguettes I imagine finding at a French bakery.  The interior crumb was tender yet toothsome. The bread has a delightful yeasty tang, a result of the lengthy pre-fermentation.
  • I toasted a few slices of the bread to go along with a Mediterranean dinner at home last night – it makes fantastic croûtes.

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