At about ten to nine this morning, humming in anticipation, I pulled my stiff levain from the oven for the last time before making my first boule using the method in the King Arthur Whole Grains Baking book.
(To go to a slide-show of the photographs on this page, or to see more detail in them, click on any picture.)
Finding the levain moist, spongy, and higher than it has been after any other feeding, I fairly tingled. What can I say? It doesn’t take much to make this granny happy. Some good music, a yeasty dough, grandkids in the house.
Following the King Arthur (KA) recipe, I weighed six ounces levain into a stainless steel mixing bowl, then added eight ounces filtered water, forgetting I was to have broken the levain into bits before adding the water. Oh, well. Messy hands are easily washed. I broke the levain to pieces and left it to soak in the water for ten minutes.
After the soak, I smashed the levain and mixed it into the water until I had a slurry. Then I added the flour and one teaspoon salt and put the mixture on my electric mixer, with the paddle attached, to combine all well.
Once the flour and slurry were fully mixed, I switched to the dough hook and kneaded for eight minutes, after the recipe. After this short knead, I turned the dough out into a bowl to rise.
The book doesn’t say to grease the bowl, so I didn’t. I like to follow instructions the first time round, no matter how strange they may seem. Turned out, the KA folks know their stuff mighty fine.
The recipe advised setting the dough in a cool, 60-degree spot for three hours. I don’t have an indoor thermometer, but since we don’t have heat in this apartment in the middle of the day, I was fairly certain the apartment temperature was around 65 degrees.
It was a cold, wet chilly San Francisco day, and the temperature outside expected to rise no higher than high fifties and low sixties. Good for this loaf, the temperature inside was not much warmer, given the short heating period we get once each morning and once each evening, whatever the weather, 365 days a year.
I set the bowl of dough, covered, in a cold, never-heated spot on the back landing, where ancient windows overlook dusty, narrow steps.
After three hours and forty-five minutes, the dough had finally wakened and very nearly doubled.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. King Arthur has a very specific method for gently handling the dough and preparing it for the final proofing.
First of all, they have us ever so carefully peel the dough from the bowl, trying not to disturb it too much. There is no punching down. As the recipe instructed, I turned the dough onto a piece of unbleached baking parchment and let it rest twenty minutes.
While the dough rested, I lined a small, stainless steel bowl with a heavily floured cotton dish towel and set it aside.
Next, again following KA specifications, I shaped the dough into a boule (which is French for ball). Thankfully, King Arthur very kindly provides us with a video that shows their technique.
Bear in mind as you’re watching this demonstration, that they use white flour. The recipe admonishes extra care not to manipulate the whole-wheat dough to the point of getting stretch marks that might tear. We want to keep the gluten strands intact. This whole process took only a few moments.
Having shaped my dough, I placed it into the towel, pinched the bottom shut as best I could, and set it in the oven to proof.
KA advises inverting a larger bowl over the rising bowl. In the photograph on the right, above, you can see I’ve placed a larger stainless steel bowl over the smaller one.
You may also notice I have a jar of starter incubating in the oven along with the bread. After I set the dough to rising the first time, earlier, I refreshed my levain. We are expecting company on Saturday and I’d like to have a fresh loaf ready, so I’m getting ready to bake another one tomorrow.
At two o’clock, I closed the oven door on my boule. According to the instructions, it should have risen in two to three hours. At five o’clock, the dough appeared very much as it had when i placed it in the oven.
We had a lot going on that evening, and I did not take photographs, but I can tell you that I checked on that loaf every couple of hours. By ten, it had not quite doubled.
With a big day ahead, tired of waiting and needing sleep, I decided not to wait longer. Placing a cast iron skillet on the oven’s bottom rack and my pizza stone on the middle rack, I turned the oven to 450º Fahrenheit. I also set a cup of water to heating in a small pan on top of the stove and readied my pizza peel with a sheet of baking parchment, lightly dusted with flour.
After thirty minutes, I inverted my boule on the pizza peel and quickly scored it with a sharp razor blade. Then I poured the simmering water into the skillet, slid the boule onto the pizza stone and quickly closed the oven door.
To assure the bread would develop a crisp crust, I opened the oven door once in the first five minutes and spritzed the loaf with water. After fifteen minutes baking, including that first five minutes, I reduced the heat to 400º and let the bread bake 30 minutes longer.
When the timer went off, I did the thump test and got a nice, hollow sound. Bread!
Oh, oh. When KA said to use a lot of flour on the towel, apparently they did not mean this much. My bread was positively white with flour. I dusted off what I could. When it had cooled, I sliced into it. Oh my goodness. I couldn’t have made a Pac-Man if I’d planned it, but there you see it. I have a lot of work to do on my slashing technique.
Although the loaf spread out some, and was not as high and round as I would like, it did have a fairly decent crumb, full of holes.
The flavor? Fantastic. Perfection. The nutty whole grain comes singing through, with hints of sweetness mingled with the sour. The crust is too thick and too crunchy, though, almost tough. Next time, I’ll let the steam in the skillet do its job with no extra spritzing.
This recipe is definitely worth another try.