I’m the kind of girl who obsesses over bike tires and circuit diagrams — who revels in building something up from a complicated pile of misplaced parts. Broken nails? They’re pretty much a fact of life — evidence that these hands actually do something more than walk over a keyboard. My favorite part of every experiment is perhaps the most frustrating bit, where my fingers become contortionists, pulling wires from the tiniest places in order to make sure everything is just so. And I hate playing to helpless woman, which is why I decided to learn to fix my car, my bike, everything on wheels, myself.
I guess I like the visual and tactile feedback, which is how I learn. If I can’t draw a picture, or trace each step visually in my head, I don’t understand. Perhaps that’s why baking is so appealing to me. It’s funny — I shied away from it at first, preferring to relegate myself to cooking creative nothings because, really, I do enough precision work at my job. But I didn’t know what I was missing until I baked my first successful loaf, took it proudly from the oven, and felt how each step should feel, how each stage should look and smell.
These days, I find myself spending more and more time with dough on my hands, kneading away the troubles of deciding what exactly to do with my life after graduation next spring. Maybe we’ll go for the pipe dream, start that bakery in Australia, and forget about all those problem sets without regret. Or maybe not — who knows. As long as I get to work with my hands.
This recipe is our weekly staple. It’s simple, and far more impressive than one would think from the straightforward recipe. And it’s the only bread I’ve made time and time again, because cutting into a homely-looking mini-baguette just after it’s finished cooling and spreading a bit of homemade butter across it’s creamy white crumb brings back every delicious loaf I had in Paris. No coincidence, really — Peter Reinhart developed this based on a Parisian baker’s recipe, which happened to win best baguette of the year not so long ago. If there’s any bread recipe I recommend for the home baker, it’s this one. So what, exactly, are you waiting for?
Pain à l’ancienne
Makes 6 mini-baguettes, 6-8 pizzas, or one 17″x12″ focaccia
This recipe is my slightly healthier variation of Peter Reinhart’s version from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I replace some portion of the all-purpose flour with a whole grain flour (whole wheat, in this case). I find it doesn’t change the result all that much, and makes me a little less guilty about making these loaves every week. Start this the night or two before you want to have fresh-baked bread. The best part about this recipe is that there is no pre-ferment or soaker; you just make the dough and let it sit in the fridge for a while, pull it out, shape it, and bake. Simple, right?
The key is cold water, which slows the fermentation process and produces the yummy, rich flavor this bread is famous for, so make sure you have ice in the house, or at least some super-cold tap water. Oh, and if you’re serious about baking, buy yourself a scale. I have a cheapo $5 number from Walgreens (embarrassingly called a “diet scale”) which has lasted ~2 years and revolutionized my baking.
- ~4-1/2 c. (20 oz.) all-purpose flour.
- ~1-1/2 c. (7 oz.) whole wheat flour.
- 2-1/4 t. (0.56 oz.) salt.
- 1-3/4 t. (0.19 oz.) instant yeast. (See my new baking tips section for substitutes)
- 2-1/4 c. – 3 c. ice water.
Combine all the ingredients together until they come together in a rough dough. Start to knead; if the flour doesn’t hydrate well, add a bit more water. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead some more, adding water as necessary, until you get a smooth, slightly tacky dough. It should feel satiny smooth and a bit sticky to the touch. If you’re using a Kitchen-Aid mixer, 6-8 minutes on medium with the dough hook should do the trick; the telltale sign that you have the right flour to water balance is that the dough looks sort of tornado-like (the sides have come away clean, but the bottom of the dough, under the hook, still makes contact with the bowl).
Place in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge overnight, or until you’re ready to bake. It should be ok for a few days.
2 hours before you want to bake: Pull the dough out of the fridge. It should have risen visibly, and have a few bubbles on the surface.
30-45 minutes before baking: Pre-heat the oven to 550°F, or as hot as your oven will get.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Use a wet dough scraper or knife to cut the dough into 6 rectangular pieces. Shape into rustic-looking baguettes (or whatever you want) by just pulling two ends of the rectangles (to minimize handling; you don’t want to deflate the dough), place on parchment-lined baking sheets or peels, and let sit until the oven is piping hot.
When you’re ready, throw the loaves in the oven, gently (if you like, you can slash them first, but it’s not necessary, though it looks impressive on occasion). Spray your oven walls with water, or just pour some on the floor if you’ve lined your oven with unglazed quarry tile (see baking tips tab), close the door, and wait 10 minutes. Check them after 10 minutes; if they’re baking unevenly, turn them around. Bake for another 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown. Once done, take out and let cool completely on a wire rack. Enjoy as is, or with whatever topping makes you happiest.
Variations: If you like, you can throw fresh rosemary, kalamata olives, or whatever flavor variation you like into this dough. The flavors get really strong over the day or two the bread ferments in the fridge, so make sure you actually like whatever you’re adding.