Thursday, November 5, 2009

BBA Challenge #21: Pain a l'Ancienne, a history

This bread.

This is my absolute most favorite bread from The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Mark my words, the beast that is Casatiello comes in at a close second, but this bread is probably the best bread I've ever baked. Back before this challenge was a just a gleam in Nicole's eye, I was on The Fresh Loaf, devouring everything I could about baking. And the book- the cover that kept popping up, was that of the book from which we are now baking. Amy, who was in the States at the time asked me if I wanted any books. And I said yes. Even though it was heavy and rather large and expensive, I was grateful for her bringing it back.

The day after she brought it back, I began reading. What I learned was more than I had known about baking in the twelve or so years that I had been doing it on then off then on and off again. I had actually never considered making a baguette let alone an epi. I was halfway through my reading of the book when the Challenge began.

The same day that I made the Andama bread, I made a set of six baguettes that would change my perception of bread. Actually, I had made the dough a few days before, but baked them on the same day as the Andama.

I brought these to a picnic, along with the Andama bread, and everyone went nuts for these.

This is a sourdough example that was really good, but took forever to rise because the sourdough was weak and I was in a hurry. Plus I sort of took a few, okay, many liberties with the procedure. But it was amazing. It was also one of the few times I added Malt Extract Powder to a bread.

Yes, this is from the same batch. This one did not rise as much, so it was gummy and not eaten. Or maybe the one before was the gummy one. In any case, one was perfect, the other one, not so.

You might recognize this one from my recent Ratatouille post. This boule, which my favorite shape of bread, is made with a half-recipe.


The thing I find about this bread is that the oven spring is just fantastic. Even with the deep scores in the previous picture, the bread just kept expanding. It came out of the side on this one.


This was the last one I made before making the "official" Challenge bread. We were visiting friends in Stuttgart, and I made the bread with the equipment on hand as well as some 1050 flour and yeast that our gracious hosts provided for me.


Got all that? Good. Now we start with the official Pain a l'Ancienne made specifically for the BBA Challenge, or, as we know it here, The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread: Making Classic Breads with the Cutting-edge Techniques of a Bread Master Challenge.


Because I know no one can resist pictures of my mixer, here is the dough in the first few minutes of mixing.


This is the part I most love about machine kneading. The dough (after some mixing and autolysing) just comes together. It turns into this amazing smooth entity. I love saying, though, okay- I love thinking. It's alive!!!


I know some people had trouble with this dough. I would very much like to blame the bad flour in the States, but I know that's just not the case. The flour is simply different.

European flour has different characteristics. For one, it is sold based on a standard that every mill is supposed to adhere. You have ash numbers designating the types of flour: 405, 550, 812, 1050, 1600, and then Whole Wheat Flour. The number corresponds to the amount, in milligrams of ash/minerals left over from burning 100g of flour. By this reasoning, whole wheat flour really should be Type 1700, but I guess if you say Vollkorn, then it's pretty obvious that you can't get any more of the wheat in there.

Just to be sure, though, Rye, which is fairly common, has its own set of numbers, as does Spelt, which is known here by what I think is a fairly cute name: Dinkel.

The thing is, that with this bread, the dough isn't supposed to pour out like a batter, it's supposed to pour out like a blob. Every time I pull this dough out of the mixer, it is like a big blob of not-quite rubber. It expands, but then contracts when you put it back.

I always use 1050 flour, which is the darkest, readily available flour here. I actually haven't made it with anything lighter, as I love the earthy taste of the flour in this dough.

The dough is then refrigerated. I usually go the full three days do develop flavor, though I have actually done four with no too-visible ill effects.


Since this is a several-day bread, I decided to wake up early on bake day and make them before work. I woke up at six in the morning and took the bowl out of the fridge, plopped it on the counter and went back to bed. It actually didn't quite lose the chill in the two hours I was asleep, though.


Nevertheless, when I woke up again, I carefully poured it out onto the floured board.


I made the mistake of cutting in half and then into six pieces despite the instructions in the book to cut it the short way into baguettes. Also, because this is a high hydration dough, I was a bit liberal with the flour, partly because I like the way it looks on the finished baguettes. If I had been making a boule, however, I would have used much less flour.


Since I was feeling a bit daring, I scored the loaves with very quick and very determined slashes. I also used my awesome Blue Steel sheet pans that I picked up at Mora in Paris. (As is my habit, whenever I link to a site, I visit it, just to get the address right. In this case, I took a 20 minute diversion looking at the goods, rather than- there I go again. I'm actually creating a list of things I need to buy instead of linking.) Because the recipe yields six baguettes, and because I don't want to make a half recipe for less bread, I baked these in two batches.


And when they came out...  Glorious.

They had streaks of flour and the scoring opened, though the bread also opened in other random places.

In an homage to my first batch, I wrapped these in whatever kitchen towel we had on-hand.

I gave two to the lovely ladies (one each) at my favorite local bookstore: ebertundweber, two to one of my co-workers, devoured one for breakfast with Nutella, and saved the other one for dinner.

The crumb is always open. And the bread? Well, it's always delicious.

Other Boulangers a l'Ancienne include:

Janice from Round The Table

Carolyn from Two Skinny Jenkins

Paul from Yumarama

Kelly from Something Shiny

Cindy from Salt and Serenity


  1. Your breads look beautiful! Just beautiful! I haven't quite mastered the baguette yet.

  2. Beautiful! I can't wait to make this bread ~

  3. Great post, they were fun to bake. I want to them as a pizza. Beautiful pictures

  4. Very impressive! Love the rustic shaping.
    I remember you mentioning the blue steel sheet pans, but couldn't find them on Mora's website. Do you remember what they're called in French?

  5. Thanks for all the great comments! I've actually been holding off on the pizza making because I know the Pizza Napoleteana is coming up, but I'm actually curious to see how this dough holds up as a pizza.

    Clotilde- Blue Steel is also known as Black Steel or Carbon Steel. Acier Noir/Bleue? I took a pic when I unpacked them. I'll dig it up when I get home.

  6. I can smell it all the way from North Texas. :) Absolutely gorgeous!

  7. As you know I struggled with this one and went the pizza route. I'm jealous of your perfect little baguettes!

  8. Your pain à l'ancienne came out wonderful!

    I recommend to try the dough for pizza. I had a try with parma ham an arugula:

    I then wanted to compare the pain à l'ancienne to the famous no knead bread and baked the dough in a marmite (dutch oven). I liked baguette style better than the round shaped bread.

    A very versatile dough!

  9. Gorgeous slashing technique! Mine's improving with every loaf but I need much more practice.

    Outstanding loaves!

  10. I've been wanting to bake this bread ever since I bought the book many moons ago (because PR raves about it in the introduction), but for some reason never did. Now I'm waiting to get to it in the recipe rotation for BBA Challenge. I've stalled a bit until after the holidays/vacation.

  11. High five because this one is my favorite too. It is so versatile and perfect in every way.

  12. Beautiful loaves! This is my number one favorite too.

    Blob is the most accurate word to describe the dough.:D

  13. Howdy! I'm very interested in this bread. My Grandma is fond of baking and I hope she will love this recipe. Thanks for sharing! I pledge to share it with my close relatives:) You can now visit this - it's quickly!