Pain à l'Ancienne
This recipe is a variation of Pain à l'Ancienne (old fashioned bread) that appeared in The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart, and is designed to produce a loaf suitable for sandwich bread. No sweetener is used but instead relies on cold fermentation and for enzymes to break down complex carbohydrates in the dough to simple sugars. A temperature of about 40° F is maintained to prevent the yeast from consuming sugars developed by enzymes. The net result is a loaf with superb natural sweetness. Very little kneading is required.
Any brand of instant yeast will do just fine. But if you bake a lot of bread purchase a 16oz packet of SAF Instant Yeast (red label). Check your local supermarket (WinCo has it for $3) or purchase online. Store in an airtight container in the freezer and it will last for years. For flour I purchase 50 pound bags of white bread flour from Costco. Over the years I've found it to be consistent and rises well.
Professional bakers specify ingredients by weight. This is especially recommended for flour as it can easily fluff-up or compress rendering volume measurements inaccurate. Kitchen scales are inexpensive and highly recommended. In bread recipes flour counts as 100% and the remaining ingredients are based on this value. For Pain à l'Ancienne Reinhart recommends 79.6% water, or 79.6% x 640g flour ≈ 510g water. For a moist and soft loaf it is important to use as much water as possible. But too much water and the loaf won't be able to hold its shape.
The recipe calls for approximately a 24 hour stay in the refrigerator. At 24 hours the dough is mildly sweet and delicious. Less than 24 hours the dough is a bit salty; more than 24 hour it ferments and becomes sour. When removed from the refrigerator the dough must be brought to room temperature and allowed to rise as quickly as possible. This prevents the yeast from excessive activity that will destroy the natural sweetness created by the enzymes. To achieve this feat a warm oven is utilized.
640g white bread flour
1 1/2 tsp yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
510g ice cold water (40° Fahrenheit — water stored in a refrigerator will do)
Start by weighing the flour in a large bowl. Remove from scales and add the yeast, salt, and mix thoroughly with a whisk. Sift mixture into second large bowl. Sifting the ingredients yields a softer loaf. Place the bowl containing sifted ingredients on your scales, zero-out the scales, and slowly add water until the correct weight is achieved. Mix the dough thoroughly with a sturdy spoon until the dough is firm and forms a cohesive ball.
After mixing is complete transfer the dough to a small bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
The next day place a pizza stone on the lowest rack and an oven pan on the top rack. In the following illustration note the position of the pizza stone and oven pan.
Preheat the oven to 180° F. Remove the bowl from the refrigerator and puncture the plastic wrap near the center with a fork to allow the dough to expand and place the bowl in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes turn the oven off and leave the dough in the oven for an additional 40 minutes. These times are approximate. If you have an instant-read thermometer measure the temperature near the center of the top layer of dough. It should be 75° F. After the dough is at temperature remove it from the oven and let it set for 15 minutes. This allows the dough to cool so it is easy to handle. Then turn on the oven and set the temperature to 425° F.
While the oven is warming cover the pizza peel with a sheet of parchment paper. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl. With a dough scraper separate the dough around the edge of the bowl and then scoop the dough onto a floured surface. Kneed the dough for less than 5 seconds and form it into a ball. With floured hands tuck in the bottom edges (palm up) so that the surface is taut and place dough on parchment paper.
Let the dough rest for the additional 10-20 minutes required for the oven to come up to temperature. This second rest period ensures the bottom portion rises along with the rest of the dough while baking. After the oven comes up to temperature add two cups of hot tap water to the pan. Slide the parchment paper from the peel to the stone. Bake for 22 minutes, rotate the loaf 180°, then bake for 12 more minutes so it browns evenly.
Baking time is approximate. The best way to judge whether or not your loaf is done is to examine the color. The lower 2/3 of the loaf should exhibit some browning on all sides. If not, let it bake a bit longer.
Remove loaf from oven and place on a rack to cool. Examine the bottom of the loaf. It should be dark brown with traces of black. Now comes the hardest part. Wait 3 hours before slicing to allow the natural sweetness to fully develop.
A Few Tips
When warming the dough be sure to leave the plastic wrap on the bowl until you are ready to work with the dough. Removing the plastic wrap too early allows the surface to dry and can create small hard nuggets.
In Reinhart's book he periodically sprays the oven walls with water at the beginning of the baking cycle. By adding hot water to the oven pan no spraying is needed.
When slicing through the loaf check for soggy portions near the highest point. If this is a problem you need to increase baking time.
If you have kids then the loaf will be gone the same day. Otherwise slice the loaf, cut each slice in half, and freeze in a freezer bag. To thaw place individual slices in a toaster for a bit and then finish thawing in a microwave.