"Things won are done,
Joy's Soul lies in the Doing."
- William Shakespeare

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Peace of Bread

I seem to be in a bit of a blogging funk these days.  Here's a few snapshots of what's been going down around here:

Pool parties with the cousins...

The Boy, off to 5th Grade Camp, reveling in his ever-growing independence, while I look on, proudly, with just a hint of sadness that it's happening oh-so-quickly...

The Girl, also reveling in her own way, making me smile at her funky fashion sense...

While I, in all truth, must admit to feeling just a bit lost these days.  For the past ten plus years, I've had my main focus centered on caring for the kiddos, both mine, and my niece and nephew.  Now that they're back in school, and my niece and nephew have moved, I find myself with a very large chunk of time on my hands, and a little at a loss as to what to do with myself.  Adding to this parenting milestone, plus a gimp ankle that keeps me kind of stuck, our supposedly short stint renting a home while we wait for our new house to close, has grown to what feels like epic proportions of  six months.  This untethered, unsettled sense of existence lingers throughout my day, while I look for new ways to define myself, and to be useful, while waiting the interminable wait to be making my own home again.

Knitting, of course, tends to take the edge off...

...but not entirely, by any means.

And so, I've been baking bread.

There is undeniable peace to be had in baking bread.  Particularly when it turns out so very heavenly.  It's not exactly filling the gap entirely, of giving me a solid sense of purpose, but it does give me a mission of sorts.

I haven't given up my bread machine, mind you.  That baby is still too much a gem in my eyes, and kneading still feels like too much work to me.  But I have been turning out some seriously good loaves these days.  It's a bit of a time commitment, working with a poolish, a French-style overnight sponge to add depth and texture, but hey, time is something I have in abundance right now.

This loaf is based on the classic French Pain de Campagne, with a marvelously thick, crusty exterior, and beautiful holey, slightly sour interior.  It's everything bread should be, even if I do cheat a bit with my machine.  I will say that I was rather hesitant to share the recipe, as words seem insufficient to describe a process that is actually quite instinctive.  In the end, though, I've decided that it's just too good not to share. 

Before I share the recipe, I'll also suggest that it helps to have either some experience working with wet dough, or at the very least, the confidence to trust that with a bit of practice, it will work out.  I flour my board liberally, and I do mean liberally, when shaping the loaf, and rely heavily on my dough scraper to help move it from board to baking sheet.  There is a balance though, between using flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the board, and actually adding more flour to the dough, which will result in a heavy, unlovely loaf...with none of those gorgeous holes.  Wet dough is essential, to the point of almost sloppy, and you'll need to wash your hands a few times while shaping.  It's well worth the work.

Here we go:

Pain de Campagne - adapted from Rustic European Breads
-makes one large boule

We'll start by making the poolish in the bread machine, the night before.

Poolish Ingredients
3/4 cup organic bread flour*
1/2 tsp yeast**
1/2 cup room temperature spring water***

*Organic flour is called for, as it hasn't been chemically treated.  Those chemicals interfere with the natural rising processes called for in this bread.  I have successfully used non-organic flour, in which case, I add an extra half teaspoon of yeast, to the dough, just to be safe.  (Not to the poolish.)

**You can use either bread machine yeast, which doesn't need proofing.  Or, if you like to buy a large quantity and can only find it as active dry yeast, you'll need to proof it, in order to get it working.  Simply add the water and yeast to the bread machine pan, and wait about 10 minutes, until the yeast dissolves and begins to look a little frothy.

***If your water is city tap water, it's most likely chlorinated, which also interferes with yeast.  You can use bottled water, if you like.  (I don't like.)  Or you can use filtered water, if you have a filter.  Or you can simply leave your tap water out during the day, or the night before, and the chlorine somehow miraculously goes away.  (Don't ask me, I'm not a scientist, I just read a lot.)

After having read the above notes, place your ingredients in the bread machine pan, proofing your yeast if necessary, and set it to the dough cycle.  Go to bed, confident that the poolish is doing its thing.

Next, we'll start our dough.  If you're unable to start your bread the next morning, never fear, just pop the poolish into a covered container, and refrigerate it, and bring it back to room temperature once you're ready for it.  It'll be fine for a day or so, and it'll add even more flavor to your finished bread.

Pain de Campagne Ingredients

1 tsp yeast** (see above note on yeast)
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rye flour
2 cups bread flour
1 Tbs sea salt
1 cup plain yogurt, at room temperature (I've used it straight from the fridge, with no problems.)
1 cup water
poolish from the night before, about 1/2 a cup (I use the whole lot from the previous recipe)

To the poolish in the bread machine, add your yeast, yogurt, and water. Allow the yeast to proof, if using active dry yeast.

Add the flours and salt, and set the machine to the dough cycle.  Once complete, dump the dough on to a heavily floured board, and have your dough scraper ready, and your hands well floured.  (If for some reason, life gets in the way of you completing the loaf right now, simply place the dough in a large, covered container and refrigerate it until you have time to rise and bake.  It'll be just fine, and actually benefits from the rest.  You must allow space in the container because the dough will still rise somewhat, initially, in the fridge.)  Use the dough scraper to slide under the bread, while shaping your dough into a boule, or round.  See my notes from another loaf on how to do this, here.)  You should have a little something like this:

Dust the top of the dough with flour, and around it, then cover with a plastic garbage bag, and leave to rise in a draft-free place, until approximately doubled in size.  You'll know your dough is fully risen when you gently prod it with a finger, and it doesn't immediately spring back, but rather leaves an impression, then slowly goes back to its original shape.  If you're not sure you'll be able to move your risen loaf (it is large, and takes a bit of finesse that comes with practice), you can move it before its rise, to a baking sheet covered in parchment paper.  I don't do this, but it may be easier if you're just getting the hang of things.

Check on your bread from time to time, it can take anywhere from an hour, to much longer, depending on room temperature and how active your yeast is, to be ready.  You'll want to preheat your oven to 450 deg F, for about half an hour before baking, with your baking sheet in the oven.  (Unless you've chosen to raise your dough on the sheet.)  I turn the oven on when the finger prod is still springing back at me, but not quite as quickly.  Again, the more often you do this, the easier it becomes.

Just before baking, place near the oven:  oven mitts or potholders, a sharp serrated knife or razor blade, a water mister (just the cheapy plastic sprayer kind, if you have it, if not, don't worry about it), and your dough scraper.  Sprinkle cornmeal on your baking sheet.  Flour your hands, and using the dough scraper, gently loosen the dough from the board and very carefully move to the preheated baking sheet.  Working quickly, and with confidence, slash the dough about 1/2 an inch deep, in a cross over the top of the dough, and place it in the oven, misting with water.

Set the timer to 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees, and cook for another 20 minutes.  My bread takes about 50 to 55 minutes to fully bake, but it's best to check it after about 40 minutes or so.  To do this, flip the bread over, and thump it with your knuckles on the base.  If it's done cooking, it'll sound hollow and deep.  (Again, with the practice, you'll get this.)  The crust will look quite dark, well before it's done, and that's a good thing.

Once the bread is done, remove it to a cooling rack, and cool it for at least 30 minutes, if you can wait that long.  It's hard, believe me, when you have that beautiful loaf sitting there, all sorts of pride filling your heart at what you just made, from scratch, and a lovely aroma wafting about the kitchen.  But resist the temptation to slice it, to allow the bread to finish its work.  (Plus you don't want all that time and effort to result in a smushed, gummy loaf.)

Now, cut into that baby, and enjoy.

There is definite peace of mind to be found in baking bread, and with time, the entire process becomes almost second nature, from start to finish.

Check out what I've got going for my next bread mission:

A science project of sorts, cultivating wild yeast from wild plums and apples, to create my own sourdough starter.  And I do believe it's working, people.  I'll keep you posted.

Have a beautiful day.


  1. Very nice post :) ... I love the pool pictures. I can smell your bread just by looking at the photos, mmmmmmmm yum! :)Steph

  2. Thank you, Steph! I'll take that as a huge compliment, given how amazing your photos tend to be.

  3. When I was little my favorite part was jumping of the driving board. I would bounce and bounce until I could jump really high. Kinda dangerous though I don't recommend other little guys doing that.