17 November 2010
This is a classic French sourdough loaf. It was made famous by a French baker named Lionel Poilâne. Monsieur Poilâne calls this loaf of bread a 'Miche' (pronounced 'meesh'). I think that the word miche translates into 'butt cheek'. I can certainly see Monsieur Poilâne looking at his first loaf and proclaiming, "Il ressemble ma miche." Assuming, of course, that he had one odd looking ass.
Whatever the origin of the name for this loaf it is indisputably one of the finest loaves you can make. It is very simple to make but takes planning, time, patience, and some pretty thorough knowledge of bread. So if you have never made a loaf of bread before you may want to start with a basic sandwich loaf and work you way up from there. It is remarkable that, with this one loaf, Lionel Poilâne built an empire of bakeries in France run by an army of bakers and apprentices.
The ingredients are simple: flour, water, and salt. There is no commercial yeast used in this bread. You will be cultivating your own. Now you are thinking, "I should have learned how to make bread with commercial yeast first." I warned you in the second paragraph. You should have read the whole post before jumping to the pictures and saying, "Cool! I'll get started right now." Read on.
You will need about two weeks to produce this loaf. Most of that time is fermentation time for the starter cultures and is largely hands-off. Think about the day you would like to bake (Saturday or Sunday in most cases), make sure you are free that entire day, and back your schedule up from there.
This loaf is a four-step dough. Step 1 is making a seed culture. Step 2 is making a barm, or starter culture. Step three is making the starter dough. Step 4 is making the final dough.
The dough is very dense and heavy and will require kneading by hand. If you use a mixer the dough will be too large for the mixer and you may burn out the engine. Be prepared to knead using all your shoulder and arm muscles. If you have someone to help with this that will make it easier. For the record, I am in good shape and pretty strong. This was a hard dough for me to knead for 15 minutes. I literally broke a sweat and had to shake out my arms and shoulders pretty thoroughly afterward.
The resulting bread is dense and chewy with a thick, crunchy crust. It makes wonderful sandwiches, toast, and is simply nice eaten plain out of hand. This is truly a master loaf.
Step 1: The Seed Culture
Making the seed culture is easy but takes four days. The first day is a simple mixing of flour and water. Mix one cup of whole wheat flour with 3/4 cup room temperature water in a one quart measuring cup. Note the level of the loose mixture. Cover the vessel with plastic and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
On day two put the seed culture into a mixing bowl and mix in one cup of bread flour and 1/2 cup room temperature water. Make sure that all of the flour is mixed in and moist. Put the seed culture back into the measuring cup, cover it with plastic and let it ferment for 24 hours at room temperature.
When day three arrives you will notice that the culture has risen and may be getting to the top of the cup. This is good. It means that you are cultivating live yeasts present in the air. If you need to move your culture to a larger mixing bowl that is fine. Even if you are not getting a large rise, on the third day you need to discard half of your culture (or give it away for someone else to work with)and stir into the remaining half one cup of bread flour and 1/2 cup room temperature water. Mix thoroughly, cover with plastic and ferment for 24 hours.
(Half of the culture given to a friend. Note the fermenting bubbles.)
By the fourth day you should notice quite a bit of rise, at least 50%. If not, just let the culture ferment for another 12 - 24 hours. Repeat the process of day three, discarding half and adding 1 cup of bread flour and 1/2 cup room temperature water. Cover and let ferment until it has doubled or even tripled in size. This could take as little as 4 hours or as many as 24 hours. The culture should be fairly loose and will start to fall if you shake or tap the bowl.
You are now ready for Step 2, building the barm, or mother culture. The barm consists of the following ingredients:
3 1/2 cups Bread Flour
2 cups Water, room temperature
1 cup Seed Culture
Discard(or give to a friend to build their own barm) all but one cup of the seed culture. Mix together the above ingredients, making sure that the seed culture is evenly distributed and that the flour is thoroughly hydrated. Put the mixture into a ceramic or glass bowl, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it ferment at room temperature for 6 hours. The plastic will begin to swell as the barm ferments and makes gas. After 6 hours, release the gas and reseal the bowl. Put it into the refrigerator overnight. The barm will be ready to use the next day and will continue to be ready for about 3 more days. After that it will need to be refreshed. (To refresh the barm discard half of it and double it with equal parts water and bread flour. You may hold it under refrigeration for up to two months before refreshing it.)
Step 3. It's time to make the firm starter dough. The ingredients are as follows:
1 cup Barm
2 cups Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 cup Water, room temperature
Mix together the above ingredients with a metal spoon so that the mixture pulls together in a ball. Sprinkle some flour on a cutting board and knead the dough for a few minutes until the ingredients are evenly distributed and the ball is thoroughly moist, slightly tacky but not sticky. Ferment the dough, covered, 4 - 6 hours, or until it is doubled in size. Keep covered and refrigerate overnight.
Step 4 (almost there, almost there). This is the final dough. Remove the starter dough from the refrigerator and one hour before you are ready to make the final dough. Gently stir it down as it will have risen some. Turn it out onto a floured board and cut the starter dough into 12 pieces. Cover them with a damp cloth so that they may come to room temperature for one hour.
The ingredients for the final dough are as follows:
7 cups Whole Wheat Flour
2 Tbsp. Coarse Sea Salt, (yes, use this and not table salt)
2 - 2 3/4 cups Water, lukewarm (90° - 100°)
Semolina Flour or Cornmeal for dusting
You have to knead this baby by hand so I hope that you have been doing push-ups for the last two weeks. In a large bowl stir together the starter pieces (they are large and clumpy; don't worry, be happy), flour, and salt. Stirring with a metal spoon, add enough water so that the ingredients begin to come together in a loose ball. You basically want all of the bits of flour to stick to the ball and not be loose in the bowl. Add more water, bit by bit, if needed. If it gets too wet add a little flour.
Turn the dough onto a well floured board. It will be a mess. This is okay. As you knead the dough it will come together (right now...over me). You will have to knead the dough for 12 - 15 minutes if you are strong. If you are weak it may take 20 - 25 minutes. Either way, if you tear off a piece of dough, stretch it thin, and hold it up to the light it should make a 'windowpane' without tearing. You will get tired and frustrated because the dough keeps tearing. Persevere, young Jedi, for the force is with you. Add just enough flour to your board, as needed, to keep the dough from sticking.
I worked the dough for about another 7 minutes after this 'windowpane' picture was taken. Here is my finished, kneaded dough:
Lightly oil a large bowl. Turn the dough into the bowl and make sure that it is lightly covered with oil, too. Arrange the dough seam side down in the bowl, cover it with plastic, and let it ferment for about 4 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Four hours later:
Gently stir down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured board. Divide it in half and shape each half into a tight ball.
Lightly oil two bowls and line them with linen towels (not terry cloth). I use spray oil for this. Spray the towels and lightly dust them with flour. Gently put a loaf in each bowl, seam side up, and cover with the overhanging towel. Proof for about 3 hours, or until the loaves have almost doubled in size.
During the last hour of this rise time preheat the oven to 500°. If you have a pizza stone then make sure that it is in the oven for the preheating. If you don't have a pizza stone then you can bake the loaves on an inverted sheet pan. Keep a square metal or glass casserole pan at the ready (more on this in just a bit).
About 3 hours later the dough should look like this:
Gently turn the dough onto a pizza peel (paddle) or inverted sheet pan (what I used) that has been lightly dusted with semolina flour or cornmeal. Score a large # into the surface of the dough. Score quickly and with a sharp, serrated blade so as not to deflate the dough.
While you are scoring the dough heat some water in a tea kettle and put the square casserole pan on the bottom rack of the oven. When the dough is scored put the inverted pan into the oven or slide the dough onto the pizza stone. Quickly pour hot water into the square casserole pan and shut the oven door. Immediately reduce the heat to 450°. DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR! After 25 minutes, working quickly rotate the loaves 180 degrees (at this time it is okay to open the oven door) and reduce the oven temperature to 425°. Continue to bake the loaves for another 20 - 30 minutes, or until they register 200° internally (use an instant read thermometer for this). The finished loaves should be dark brown and crusty. The pan of water in the oven helps to produce the steam necessary to build the thick crust. If the loaves are getting too brown on the bottom put a sheet pan over the pan of water to help block the heat. Conversely, if they are getting too brown on top cover them loosely with a sheet of tin foil.
Wait at least two hours before you slice the bread. I sliced mine the next morning. If you look at the lead picture to this post you will see what I had for breakfast that day. It's really good with Nutella on it.
Complicated? No. Complicated? Yes. The ingredients are simple. The timing is not. Should you try this I encourage you to read this post multiple times. Get a good idea in your head as to how this is going to work. Feel free to shoot me some questions. Feel free to shoot me. Look in my post archives and read through (better yet, make) some of my other bread recipes. They are more basic and will give you a good idea of what bread dough should feel like.
For the record, I am going to play around with the flour ratios in this loaf. The next time I make it I am going to use half bread flour and half whole wheat flour in the final dough. Whatever you choose to experiment with, the final dough should register 200° internally.
Also, keep your barm alive. Refresh it once in a while and it will start to take on a nice tangy flavor and aroma that is unique to your home. This is what I love about sourdough bread; it is truly your bread from your yeast. Yum.
This bread recipe was adapted from Peter Reinhart's book "The Bread Baker's Apprentice".