Week Twelve: Pre-Fermented Breads
The bread for today uses a pre-ferment known as a pâte fermentée, or “fermented dough” in French. This technique uses a piece of dough from a previous batch of bread as the pre-ferment, introducing flavor and texture from the acids developed by the yeast’s activity. Yes, this means that salt and any other ingredients are present in this “old dough”.
Now, wait, you may be saying. Didn’t I say yesterday that one shouldn’t add salt or anything other than flour, water, and yeast to a pre-ferment? Well, yes, I did. And in most cases, you shouldn’t. But let’s say you’re a peasant in the 16th century. You don’t have a whole lot of flavor-boosting options open to you; but you do know that your bread tastes a whole lot better if you save some of the dough from the previous day’s bread to add to today’s bread. This is an ancient technique, and it just so happens to work. Ideally, yes, you would not add salt to a pre-ferment. But for home baking (a couple of loaves at a time), the scale is too small to affect things very noticeably. So there you go.
This technique of using an old dough is so widely recognized and appreciated that these days, professional bakers will purposely make a batch of dough just for this use. This allows them to control the fermentation and the percentages of flour, water, and yeast in the pâte fermentée. You can use, in this recipe, any dough that you have made previously; but the result will be unpredictable. It takes a little more time, but I recommend using the recipe for the pâte fermentée given.
So I’ll admit it: I didn’t have very high hopes for this bread, once I had started making it. You see, I used a recipe from a book called The Professional Pastry Chef, which gives recipes in quantities for (you guessed it) professional pastry chefs, not for home bakers. This book has never let me down before. But usually when I use this book, I scale the recipes down by at least half. But for some reason, I decided to go ahead and make the full recipe. This was a mistake.
The pre-ferment was not a problem to make, but when I combined it with the remaining ingredients, it made so much dough that my poor KitchenAid was struggling so hard that I could smell the motor burning. I’ve never heard it whining so much. The problem is where you’re supposed to mix the dough, and then finally add the crucial salt and crushed vitamin C pills (explanation forthcoming). I couldn’t possibly ask my poor, groaning mixer to finish the job. I eventually pulled the dough out, cut it in half, and mixed the salt and vitamin C in as equal parts as I could with the mixer.
But again, there was a problem: the whole batch of dough was too big, but half the batch was too little to mix properly in the mixer. What to do?! In the end, I mixed about 3/4 of the dough with the salt and vitamin C in the mixer, then added the remaining dough to that by hand, kneading it all together on the counter. I’m sure I over-kneaded much of the dough, and under-kneaded the rest of it. Neither is a good thing.
This method was not perfect by any means. I watched my own actions as though from afar, saying, “This will never work.” But if there’s one thing breadmaking has taught me, it’s that my intuition is not always right. I ended up with five baguettes; and while they weren’t all perfect, they all turned out pretty well. Some were lumpy on one end or another, true; but the flavor was amazing!
So the moral of the story is this: unless you have a professional-grade and -size stand mixer, you may want to halve this recipe. If you don’t, however, don’t expect to win awards with this bread; but you may just impress some friends with this recipe. I assure you, no one else will go to such effort, just for bread. And man, oh man, is the flavor spot on! The texture I will not vouch for one way or another; I certainly did it no favors. I’m sure the fault lies with me, not the recipe. But even with all the abuse I heaped upon this dough, it still turned out with a lovely crust and soft interior. And have I mentioned the flavor? It’s so good! Just amazing! I will definitely make this bread again after this year is up (and that’s saying a lot!).
And what about the name? Well, “epi” means “wheat” in French. These loaves are meant to look like sheaves of wheat. I found them surprisingly hard to form (and I’ve decorated wedding cakes!), especially considering the ease the dough seems to have at first; but please don’t let that deter you. You may be more talented at this than I was. You just need a clean pair of kitchen shears, and the instruction that you start at the bottom of the sheaf pattern. Other than that, it’s up to you to sort out. But don’t worry about it much; you will have plenty of practice with the five loaves this recipe produces. And I assure you, the flavor will seduce everyone long after the shape is gone and forgotten! You can always just cut the loaves into even pieces with a bench scraper, and make little dinner rolls. I assure you, they will be delicious!
Adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg
Makes 5 loaves
For the pre-ferment:
1/2 teaspoon active-dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water (105º – 115º F)
10 ounces bread flour
For the dough:
2 1/2 cups cold water
1 recipe pre-ferment (above)
2 pounds + 6 ounces bread flour (8.48 cups)
4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons salt
4 grams vitamin C (eight 500 mg tablets, crushed)
For the pre-ferment:
1. Dissolve the yeast in the water Add the flour and mix utnil smooth.
2. Cover with plastic film and refrigerate overnight.
For the dough:
1. Combine the pre-ferment (or old dough, if using instead), water, yeast, and all but a handful of the flour in a stand mixer. Knead with the dough hook on low speed for 8 minutes, adjusting the consistency if necessary by adding the remaining bread flour. The dough should be soft but not sticky.
2. Incorporate the salt and vitamin C. Knead 4 minutes longer on low speed.
3. Cover the dough and let it rest in a warm place for 30 minutes.
4. Divide the dough into 5 equal parts, reserving one (1 pound amount) to use in the next batch if desired.
5. Form the pieces into long ropes, about 16 inches in length, using heel of hand to deflate any air bubbles. Place on sheet pans lined with parchment paper. Don’t place more than 3 loaves per large sheet pan.
6. Holding scissors at a 45º angle, cut a wheat sheaf (or “epi”) design into the loaves, alternating left and right. Start at the bottom of the sheaf pattern for the best result. Cut well into the loaves; they will rise and join together. Preheat the oven to 425º F.
7. Let the loaves rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. When fully risen, spray the dough with water, and bake for 5 minutes. Open the oven and very quickly spray the loaves again. Bake for another 5 minutes. Open the oven door to let out any residual steam, close it again, and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the loaves are done and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove to a cooling rack and let cool until room temperature.
1. I know, you’re wondering why I gave the whole recipe here when I obviously had so many problems making it in my own kitchen. Well, I might’ve just halved the recipe, but (again, long story short), that wouldn’t exactly work. And I did try to determine the correct percentages to make a smaller recipe, but it was very late when I wrote this, and numbers just weren’t working out properly. So I thought I’d give you the best shot at what I created, and reproduce the recipe that I used. I do apologize if any of you happen to burn out the motors on your KitchenAid mixers.
2. If you happen to have one pound of old bread dough on hand, you could absolutely use that in place of the recipe given for the pre-ferment.