Pain au Levain
I have many books on bread baking, all filled with recipes. But I find that this recipe, or a variation of it, is the one I come back to time after time. It really shouldn't work quite the way it does, but somehow it manages. The flavor, texture and keeping quality are fantastic.
First a little bit about sour dough cultures. Sour dough, or levain in French, is the oldest form of leavening. It is simply flour and water and time.
To make mine I mixed one part whole rye flour, one part unbleached white flour and two parts water.
So, a quarter cup rye flour a quarter cup white flour added to a half cup water.
Let it sit in a warm place a couple days, then feed it a tablespoon flour and a tablespoon water every other day until you notice bubbles forming.
There should be some sign of life after a couple days, maybe three. Keep feeding it every couple days. Once it starts to look frothy and really bubbly it is ready to use. It will take some time, a few months, to get the right balance of yeasts and bacteria that give sour dough the maximum flavor.
This particular recipe, and a variation I also make, is a very very wet dough. I don't bother to knead it; instead it gets a series of folds over the course of a couple to three hours that give it strength.
A day and a half before you will bake the bread you freshen the sour dough. In other words: feed your sour dough culture Friday night if you plan on baking the bread Sunday.
So, let's go with the Sunday schedule:
Friday night feed the starter.
Saturday evening mix together:
12 ounces unbleached white bread flour.
1.5 ounces rye flour. (I use Bob's Red Mill dark rye flour)
10.75 ounces water warmed to 90 degrees.
3 ounces starter.
Mix it until it is just incorporated, do not knead it.
Cover the mixing bowl and leave it until morning.
Sunday morning add:
12 ounces unbleached white flour.
1.5 ounces rye flour.
10.75 ounces 90 degree water.
1 tablespoon salt.
Mix it all together until it resembles a shaggy mass, as the bread books like to say.
Cover the mixing bowl and set the bowl in a warm spot. Set a timer for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes dump the dough onto a well floured countertop and quickly work your fingers under the edges of the dough and stretch it, then fold it onto itself in thirds. Kind of like you would fold an 8 by 11 piece of paper to fit into an envelope. Fold it three times, place the dough back into the bowl and wait another 30 minutes.
Fold and rest the dough 3 more times at 30 minute intervals .Stretch fold stretch fold; 3 times.
You will notice the dough starts to get stronger each time you fold it, it resists the stretch. What's happening is the gluten is gaining strength.
After the 4th fold set the bowl aside for an hour for the final fermentation.
Now you can shape the dough for proofing.
Dump the bread dough onto the counter keeping as much air inside the dough as possible. Cut the dough in half. You can stretch it into a torpedo shape or make round loaves..... boules. Work quickly , this dough is very sticky. One trick you can use is to wet your fingers with oil before you begin shaping.
Place the shaped loaves onto parchment paper on a sheet pan and cover it. I use a large plastic bag to enclose the bread to keep it from drying out.
A half hour or so before the bread is ready to bake heat the oven to 460 degrees. I bake on a pizza stone. Under that stone on the bottom shelf of the oven I put a pan of water to moisten the oven.
Just before loading the bread into the oven take a sharp knife and slash three diagonal cuts on top of the loaves; about a quarter inch or so deep. Spritz the bread with a little water. Slide the bread and the paper quickly onto the pizza stone and spritz the sides of the oven to create steam. The steam helps the surface of the dough stay moist so that it can stretch as the bread rises.... the 'oven spring' as it is called.
Sour dough springs a little more slowly than commercial yeast dough so give it another spritz after 5 minutes or so.
Bake 20 minutes at 460 degrees and another 8 minutes at 375.
Let the bread cool before slicing.
You can see this bread has a nice open holed structure. The crust is crispy and chewy and the crumb is moist and light, and the flavor is remarkable..
This bread is always popular. It's a winner.