This French kneading method is the only one, truly the only method, that has given me consistently good 100 percent whole wheat loaves with the texture and flavors I want in a bread.
Since I last posted, I’ve made several loaves using Babette’s kneading method. In that post, I linked to her instructional video, which I encourage you to watch if you want to try it too.
Here’s how the French method works
With bare, unfloured hands, I pick the dough up, perpendicular to my body.
Holding it loosely, I quickly turn the dough and slap the butt end on the flour-less table.
Using the momentum of the slap to stretch and release the dough, almost simultaneously, I turn and pick it up from the side once more, repeating until the dough is elastic, pliable, and smooth as a baby’s bottom–or as smooth as whole wheat flour can get.
(Select any image to watch the slide show.)
Babette doesn’t get nearly as much dough on her hands as I do on mine. She says lots of practice will change that. For her, just a few minutes kneading does the trick, but she’s using white flour.
To succeed with a 100 percent whole wheat dough, I’ve found that twenty minutes, working a fairly wet dough, is just right. After twenty minutes kneading, I do the baby bottom check.
The baby bottom check
Babette shows us how to check that the gluten has developed enough to set the dough to rising. She calls it the baby bottom check.
Instead of slapping the dough down hard, we handle it gently, letting it rest down with very little help, and tucking the ends under so it forms a ball.
If the dough is smooth as a baby’s bottom, it’s ready. Because of the bran, whole wheat boules will always be a little pimply and never quite as smooth as a tiny mite’s bum, but we can get pretty close.
If the dough shows signs of splitting and tearing on the surface, knead a little longer. If it’s round and smooth, it’s ready. Place the boule in an un-oiled bowl, cover and let rise in a cool spot two hours.
Say what? Proof in a cool spot?
If you’re new to this site, you may have missed earlier posts where I learned from the King Arthur Whole Wheat Baking book to make sourdough with a stiff levain and to let it rise slowly in a cool–about 60º Fahrenheit–environment.
There’s no place in my San Francisco apartment, not even on the communal back porch, where the temperature gets down to 60º very often. It’s usually more like 70º, so that’s what I have to work with. Or should I say, to make my dear old English teacher, Mrs. Howard, happy, “with which I have to work.”
Don’t you miss those important people in your life? Back in high school, in the throes of raging teenage hormones and a total crisis in selfdom and personhood, I hadn’t a clue how much Mrs. Howard’s brief kindness and strict adherence to the proper use of our language would mean to me in later life.
If you’re a teacher, and you’re reading this, just know, a thirty-second conversation with you may stick with your pupil for the rest of her very long life. At least, I hope it’s going to turn out very long. It’s already been nearly half a century since Mrs. Howard put her hand on my shoulder and, with tears in her eyes said, “But why aren’t you going to college? You’re one of the ones who should!”
So thank you, teachers everywhere. Even if your pupil doesn’t manage to say it right then, some day he or she will be grateful for your kindness and your fine teaching skills.
Um, back to the bread
The results are everything I’ve dreamed in a sourdough bread: A dough that truly pops in the oven, rising nearly half again its size, has a nice, crunchy crust on the outside, and is tender and moist on the inside with lots of gassy bubbles.Take a look.
Here’s the boule, just before slashing it and popping it in the oven. Yeah, I goofed. I forgot to proof it in the banneton and laid it on the peel instead, so no pretty floury rings this time.
At the last second, I decided to throw some seeds on top, to give it a little color and texture.
Here’s the loaf the next morning. Yup, I made my sweetheart wait till breakfast to cut into it because the lighting is so poor in our kitchen at night. I couldn’t get a decent picture of it fresh from the oven.
One of these days, I’ll get better at slashing. All the same, looks good, doesn’t it?
Boy, is it good! My grandchildren love to eat it plain. They don’t ask for butter or jam. That’s how good it is.
Me? I like it best toasted and slathered with butter melting into all the crevices, or not toasted, and smeared with fresh avocado, topped with tomato and red onion slices and a few home-grown sprouts.
You have to be a little crazy, I suppose, to want to make bread this way, but it soothes my soul and gives me a sense of grounded, earthy sanity in a world that seems wildly insane at times.
What keeps you going?