Week Thirty-Eight: Spanish Breads
The baguette, in France, is a highly regimented object. Under the austere and unyielding eye of the law, baguettes must be made to exact specifications in size, weight, and composition – which, of course, vary according to whatever city you happen to be in, as one might expect from the precise and laissez-faire French.
In Spain, the baguette is no less popular than in France – as one might expect from two neighboring countries both so appreciative of the gastronomic arts – but the Spanish are far more forgiving of variation. The Spanish barra de pan is not so specific a thing as the French baguette, though it is no less delicious. It does tend to be a bit drier and harder, more suited to eating with other foods (saucy mussels come immediately to mind), where the French version is meant to be savored of its own right.
I think I will be forgiven, then, if I adapt a baguette recipe to mimic the barra de pan. This recipe takes at least two days, but the efforts are minimal, and the result is certainly worthy of any table. With its creamy interior and firm crust, this barra makes an ideal base for a food I introduced in yesterday’s post, pa amb tomàquet.
Normally, I wouldn’t ever mention a dish two days in a row. But it really, really is that amazing. I don’t remember the last time I made so simple a dish, that was so much fun to eat, that resulted in such eye-rolling, guttural-noise-inducing bliss. And the almost buttery flavor of this barra de pan, the rare hallmark of a well-crafted bread, sets off the tartly sweet flavor of a just over-ripe tomato perfectly. An even hand with the olive oil, and a sparkle of salt on top, and I was in heaven.
This bread was good enough on its own. In fact, it may be one of the better breads I’ve made this year. But with those farmer’s market tomatoes, resplendent and vibrant, it was far more than just bread. It was savoring, it was smelling, it was crunching, it was reminiscing, it was love. It was why I started this project in the first place.
Barra de Pan
Adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart
Makes 3 loaves
For the starter:
3 3/4 ounces (about 3/4 cup) unbleached bread flour
1/12 teaspoon instant yeast (a large three-fingered pinch)
1/2 cup water, at room temperature
For the final dough:
16 ounces (about 3 1/3 cups) unbleached bread flour
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9 ounces) water, at room temperature
1. To make the starter, whisk all ingredients together. The mixture should have the consistency of thick pancake batter; add more water or flour as necessary to achieve the proper thickness. Cover loosely, and let stand at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours, or until bubbly. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to 3 days. When ready to continue, let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before proceeding.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flours, salt, and yeast. Add the water and all of the starter. Using the dough hook, mix at low speed until all flour is moistened, and a rough dough forms.
3. Increase the speed to medium-low, and knead until smooth and supple, about 6 minutes longer. Add extra flour as needed to adjust the consistency; the dough should be slack, but should not be soupy.
4. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly-oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
5. Uncover the dough and, using a nonstick spatula, fold the dough over itself in a tri-fold, as though you were folding a letter. Then, fold dough in half again, perpendicular to the first folds (like you’re folding the letter in half). Dough should end up being roughly a square. Cover again, and let rise an additional 2 hours.
6. Lightly oil a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, being careful to deflate it as little as possible. Using a bench scraper, cut the dough into three long pieces. With floured hands, shape each into a long baguette. Carefully transfer each to the prepared baking sheet, seam-side down. Cover loosely with lightly-oiled plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature until doubled in size, about 50 to 60 minutes. Preheat the oven to 500º F.
7. Using a sharp serrated knife, quickly and lightly slash the loaves 4 or 5 times each, on a diagonal. Spray or sprinkle the dough lightly with water, and transfer immediately to the oven. Bake at 500º F for 2 minutes, opening the door to spray the dough with water every 30 seconds. Reduce the temperature to 450º F, and bake for an additional 20 minutes or so, checking the bread after 15 minutes. The bread should be well-browned, and an instant-read thermometer should register around 205º F when inserted into the center. Remove to a wire rack to cool thoroughly before slicing.
Pa Amb Tomàquet (Bread With Tomato)
Slices of crusty bread
1 clove garlic (optional)
Very ripe fresh tomatoes
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1. Slice the bread, and toast it lightly under a hot broiler.
2. If using, cut the garlic in half horizontally, and rub it over the bread.
3. Cut the tomato in half horizontally, and rub it over the bread until the bread is very stained, and the tomato is reduced to a shell of its former self.
4. Sprinkle the bread with a little salt, drizzle lightly with olive oil, and serve immediately, perhaps with some Serrano ham, anchovies, Manchego cheese, or canned tuna.
1. The barra de pan will keep at room temperature for about a day. If not eating within that time, it should be frozen, tightly wrapped, and reheated in a 350º F oven for about 5 minutes, or until heated through.
2. Again, for the pa amb tomàquet, use fresh tomatoes, not canned. The Spanish will come and get you in the night if you even think about using canned. It is best if the tomatoes are just over-ripe, and slightly soft; firm tomatoes won’t soak into the bread nearly as well.