As a new bride, my husband gifted me a copy of Breaking Bread written by Benedictine monk of Fr. Dominic Garramone along with his accompanying, instructional VHS video. My husband is a first class “breadhead”. I use this term affectionately. Together we watched the video and Fr. Dom’s television segments on PBS. For St. Valentines Day 2003 hubby gifted me a set of bread bowls, a Danish dough whisk and some bread flour. I spent the afternoon making bread for the first time, hubby cheered me on from the sidelines. Over time my confidence and repetoire grew from plain breads to flat breads and enriched breads. One day I discovered “The Bread Bakers Apprentice” on the shelf of my fathers bookcase. It was here I first read about Lionel Poilâne and his miche, arguably the most famous boulanger of our time.
The Poilâne family started their business in 1932 in a small shop located at 8 rue Chèrche-Midi in the well heeled, bohemian district of Saint Germain-des-Prés in Paris. Without getting into too much detail the Poilâne family signature loaf is a two kilogram boule. It is a rustic, wild yeast country bread that is termed miche in his boulangerie but everywhere else in Paris it is termed pain Poilâne. And, pain Poilâne is everywhere in Paris. Sadly Lionel died in a helicopter accident in 2002, his daughter Apollonia, a Harvard graduate, continues to run the family business.
Our family first travelled to Paris in 2008. Our daughter Emily was the tender age of 3 and our daughter Sarah was 4. It was the first time I had travelled to Europe. I was excited, had no expectations and yet in my minds eye and in my heart I knew without equivocation that I would buckle at the knee and fall head over heals in love with this great city. There were only four places I wanted to visit: Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, la tour Eiffel and Boulangerie Poilâne. When you’re a bread head who wouldn’t want to try world famous bread?
The entrance and the shop itself was warm and inviting. Yellow light bathed the shop in a warm glow and mirrors behind the wood display racks gave the impression that the shop was larger than it actually was. We were there early in the morning, the shop was crowded with people getting their morning treats. We were so blessed to have had an opportunity to try their chaussons aux pommes still warm from the oven. I have yet to have its equal. Impossibly flaky, buttery, soft. The apples, no linguistics major could describe the fragrant, soft apple filling. I long/yearn for and dream of their chaussons.
Cane baskets full of punitions a small circular, thin, buttery french shortbread flanked both sides of the sales desk and were offered to my little ladies. Enthusiastically received and in the spirit of new sensational European tastes, my gals immediately wanted more. Bakers have heart, huge hearts, but they are also saavy…we came home with a bag of the little cookies.
On our last day we returned to Poilâne, this time for a second miche that I wanted to bring home to my dad. Afterall it was his copy of the BBA that introduced me to the miracle of pain Poilâne. My husband shook his head in disbelief when I told him I intended to carry the 2 kilo boule in my carry-on. He knows better than to try to dissuade me when I make a firm descision. In the end the boule made it home to Ottawa without incident.
My dad was able to taste first hand the the compact, shatteringly crisp crust and the soft flavourful crumb that seems to change with each bite.
Now to the challenge. I had serious doubts on trying this recipe at home. Our home is roughly 30 years old. Paris is ancient. In my head there is no way to replicate that distinct flavour in a home that is newborn compared to a boulangerie that has been cultivating wild yeast for close to 80 years in a city thousands of years old. Pas possible. In addition, I had massive doubts as to the flavour of the bread given the difference in our flours, water, salt and the fact that the boulangerie uses a wood burning oven and I use an electric. My first attempt of this bread, ten years ago was a failure with both the barm and the bread. It tasted of plain whole wheat bread. That said, in my journey to become a baker, my knowledge has increased and I have a better idea on where to find specialty ingredients.
This go around my barm and firm starter were successful. I weighed my stone ground, whole wheat flour and then sifted out 20 percent of the weight in bran.
For the dough itself I used a 50/50 mix of Canadian organic bread flour and the 20 percent extraction weight of the stone ground organic whole wheat flour. I brought the French grey salt home from Paris and it is what I used in the dough.
When bakers say making bread is hard work, it is. My mixer couldn’t handle the dough. It took 30 minutes of kneading for the dough to reach a windowpane and 77 degrees.
The day I baked this I wanted a leg up on my bread, so to keep my kitchen warm in our Canadian winter I baked brioche at the same time. It took a full 4 hours for my dough to ferment and double in size.
It took 2.5 hours for the shaped dough to proove double in size. I had bought bannetons to proove this dough in but did not know that bannetons need to be seasoned, so I shaped the dough into two boules. I took a huge gamble by putting the two boules on one baking sheet because I can be impatient. I was annoyed with myself because once the dough was prooved I had maybe 2 mm of space until the dough spilled over the edge of the sheet pan. Not enough. Once dough is prooved you can’t move it easily for fear of degassing the dough…if that happens, it’s finished. In the end I MacGyvered another sheet pan under the first to resolve my problem.
K is for Kuchciak and how I scored the loaves. I used my pizza stone as a baking stone with a light, jellyroll pan for water in the bottom of my oven and a quasi attempt at hearth cooking. The water as it evaporates creates steam which in turn helps to develop a crispy crust. We like crispy crust so in addition to the pan of water, I sprayed the oven walls with water.
Peter Reinhart suggests leaving the bread at least 2 hours to crust up. Lionel Poilâne suggests his miche is best eating after two days. Our family waited the 2 hours, because who can resist fresh bread? We set out a cheese board with slices of fresh bread and a selection of some favourite European cheeses. It was yummy!
My favourite application of the miche was a tartine of Canadian bacon and vacherin fribourgeois (hard core, washed rind, raw cows milk cheese). Yes, the kitchen stank of cheese but, it screamed Paris and we didn’t care.
I scored the bread 18/20. Chris scored the bread full marks.
To close my lengthy post…for 39.99€, a true bread head can order an actual Poilâne miche from the beautiful Poilâne website. It is Fed-Ex’d the next day. How cool is that? Is it worth the cost? Chime in, if you like. My little grey cells are churning…