As usual, I had bread on my mind the moment I returned to New York from my latest trip to Singapore.
After weeks away from my oven, I always touch down just itching to bake something. And this time, a quick check with my fellow Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge bakers revealed that they were mired in a difficult spot in the bread lineup.
“We are in Sourdough right now,” said Daniel in Berlin (a.k.a. @MisterRios of the Ährelich Gesagt blog). “Everyone is tRYEing their best.”
Ahh, bread humor. Gotta love it.
After the laughter subsided, however, I started to get worried. Sourdough in the hands of lesser bakers can be a massive pain in the tush.
I should know.
Just last month, bolstered by a successful pane Siciliano and wondering what to do with a bowl of sourdough starter, I brazenly decided to take on a legend: Poilane miche — the Holy Grail of breads.
Now, Poilane and I, we go back a few years.
I’ve never visited the vaunted boulangerie, whose breads used to be regularly flown to New York by Concorde so it could be sold relatively fresh in Manhattan. But I have enjoyed it hot and fresh in Paris both in its pure form and topped with ham, melted gruyere and an egg in a deliciously sour Croque Madame.
So I was immediately tempted when I saw it on the list in Peter Reinhart’s bread book. Sure, I hadn’t made even basic sourdough bread before, making this attempt a little insane.
But a girl can dream — why crawl when you can fly, right?
From the beginning, however, this bread was my nemesis.
On the first day, I mixed together some starter, whole wheat flour and water to form a ball. The dough was incredibly dry at this point and a little crumbly. Nonetheless, I decided to power through.
The next day, problem number two emerged. After you add seven cups of flour, salt and water, this dough becomes massive — so massive that you can’t use a
standmixer to knead it.
I hadn’t thought this would be an issue until I
realized how stiff this dough was. After several minutes of kneading, I
began to intimately understand what “working your fingers to the bone”
After more fermenting, I formed it into a boule and let it ferment even more.
It started to look OK — a little professional, even, after scoring it with a hash sign to look like the picture on the cover of the book.
The big cracks appearing were worrisome, however. The dough also felt very dry and incredibly heavy. But we’d come too far to turn back by this point. So after prepping the oven for hearth baking, in it went.
How did it look at the end? Well, like a big rock, essentially. And just about as heavy as one, too.
In short, nothing like the Poilane miches I’d seen in my life.
After sawing through the rock that was my miche, we found a dense, dry bread that bordered on inedible.
My rose-tinted visions of home-made Croque Madame with my very own Poilane-style miche instantly disappeared.
What went wrong? I’m not entirely sure.
But just as I wouldn’t have bought a sewing kit and expected to create a Yves Saint Laurent masterpiece in a day, I probably shouldn’t have expected to nail a Poilane miche on the first try.
This is not to say I’m giving up on sourdough breads, however.
But first things first — I’ll have to learn how to crawl.
Not all Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge bakers were such massive failures at Poilane miche. Check some out here:
Jude‘s at Apple Pie, Patis & Pate
Oggi‘s at I Can Do That!
Phyl‘s at Of Cabbages & King Cakes
TXFarmer‘s at The Fresh Loaf
Sally‘s at Bewitching Kitchen
You can also check out more Poilane-style miches at Yeastspotting.