Thursday, February 28, 2008

A comparative study of my Daring(tm) attempt at making Pain Francais (using Julia Child's recipe) with my memories of the real deal

It’s not my first time making bread.

But. Having only recently returned from Paris, where I ate baguette literally everyday; I still have such fresh memories of how it should be that I was, from the beginning, already a little psychologically prepared that my home made baguette just probably won’t be the same. I wasn’t just an eater of baguette, I purposefully sought baguette out from different boulangeries, never stepping into the same one twice (which was easy enough to do). I cradled, listened to, and savoured the taste of every single baguette. I felt that, at the end of my 3 week stay in Europe - especially after concurrently experiencing a number of very different Italian breads when in Italy, and a brief encounter with Belgian baguette when I somehow got lost between countries - that I can say, I developed some very personal memories of French baguette.

What can I describe of my experience of French baguette? It produces this tantalising crackle when you slice through it, there’s that soft fluffy bread belly that is sort of like a super elastic cotton candy. I was told that kids love to just eat that fluff and forget the crust. Baguette has a full bread flavour – that’s not very descriptive, but suffice to say, it gives one a feeling of well-being. You feel like going for a walk through the Tuileries, even when it’s cold and grey.

There’s always a baguette in my backpack with some cheese – truffle brie, Roquefort papillon, whatever. My backpack smelt so much like a stinky old shoe - even though it was midwinter - that I felt vaguely paranoid whenever I opened my backpack on the metro. Sometimes, the crust wore my gums out – too much, too tough - but I crave the bread again the next day. It’s true that I had so much baguette, that I sometimes fantasised about rice or noodles.

However, I fell deeply in love with French cheese, all because of baguette.

My white pain, with a tinge of brown

The comparison between my pain francais and my memories of the actual pain francais frankly fails – not surprisingly - but there were some saving graces. I finished all of the bread on my own in two days, in a number of combinations with other foodstuffs. It was still a pretty damn good pain.

But since this is a comparative study, some comparison needs to be made.

My crust was rather more hard than crackly, and it didn’t produce the tantalising music of baguette when I sliced it through. The “brush with cold water when fresh out of the oven” trick really lent a golden sheen – nice. And actually, in spite of the disappointing texture - the flavour of my pain francais was just downright delicious. I think it was the salt. I was initially shocked at the amount of salt I had to add – in this day and age? - but that is something I’m going to be doing for all future breads I make from now on.

The texture of the bread belly was most inauthentic. As you can see, it simply wasn’t elastic enough. It came off like a humongous crumb, even though there were some very pretty irregular holes from the perspective of the cross section. I’m sure it was the flour – I used a normal plain flour because I simply could not locate any flour anywhere that printed their gluten content anywhere on the package that I can inspect. I went all over town, squinted at flour packages, but there was no special gourmet or AP flour to be found. Furthermore, I used up every last bit of flour I had with only a couple of pinches left for flouring the kneading surface that, half way through, I bit my lip and floured the surface with wholemeal flour. So my pain francais had that quirk of being mostly white, with a smattering of brown.

I'm an artisan enveloping a bubbly clod

I believe that many home bakers of bread agree that the breadmaking process always brings with it a little bit of self-discovery. Maybe it’s the time you have to spend indoors with yourself – pretty much the whole day. Or the attention you suddenly have to devote to taking care of something that seems to have a life of its own – a breathing, sweating clod. Or something to do with the softness of the dough – like this dough - that somehow has a soft yielding quality that’s similar to flesh. During the second kneading, I had a vague impression of it somehow feeling like a rather moist baby. It encourages you to treat it gently.

This was also the longest recipe I’ve ever read - man, was this a long read. But it was worth it. I can see the results of the enveloping – something that at first I cursed silently at (“why can’t I just shape it anyway I want”). Thus, I tamed my impatient nature momentarily, my tendency for action – which was very satisfying. It was especially exciting watching the bubbles develop, whenever I peeked in at the fermenting dough every so often. Then it was fun puncturing the gas bubbles during the kneading, the way I would bubble wrap as a child. I imagined myself, while kneading the dough, as an artisanal French baker who would wake up at 4 am in the morning, in order to bake fresh bread for my regular customers; but one who is also so on to the times, that she would dedicate her afternoons to making Youtube videos of her art – kneading, enveloping and such - in order to share the baguette tradition with the rest of the online world.

It's a coup!

Then I used my Henckels slicing knife to execute la coupe. German knives on French bread – pourquoi pas, c'est wunderbar! I’m very proud of my knives, so I took lots of pictures of various slits. At first, I thought that the paring knife might be best, but that pulled at the dough, and was no good. The slicing knife, however, was perfect.

I admit that the dough baby fantasy went on for a bit, that by the time slashing time came, I couldn’t really do a good samurai on them, but only very shallow, careful slits. I really loved the slashing most. If bakers actually worked in some sort of a chain process, I would most like to be La Slasher. I was a little disappointed I could only do three coupes per bread.


L Vanel said...

What a wonderful journey. Your bread looks delightful as well. I think I would be Le Slasher as well. I slash slash slashed away and thought to myself - that's it?

Big Boys Oven said...

Bread , bread, bread, yours look so cool! mine looks ok too but a bit burnt! :(

Mary said...

I think you would make a good Le Slasher. Your bread looks just perfect!

breadchick said...

Your bread is fantastic looking. Great job.

Thanks for baking with Sara and I

Jenny said...

I think the insides are just about developing the gluten (I could be wrong) and the outside texture has to do with the oven (but again, I'm new at this). Great job on your challenge though - will you be trying again?

Yenping said...

Jenny - you are probably right. I don't know if I would be trying this exact recipe again - being a tweaker at heart - but I knew it was going to get me into a bread baking phase. Only just over the weekend, I baked two bread batches - one savoury and one sweet. While doing so, I paid more attention to my kneading, and also used a sort of enveloping approach, and the gluten strands came out much much nicer (and it was the same flour). My bread was actually quite fluffy inside. . .

So I think this recipe has been useful also in just giving me a good foundational lesson of sorts.

Thanks breadchick for being the breadchick - I'm beginning to want to bake bread again.

Angel said...

I think your bread looks gorgeous.
Great Job!