Thursday, January 21, 2010

Classic French Bread and all about a baker's couche

Loaves on the left are better formed after rising in a couche.
I'm always experimenting with bread recipes and techniques, trying to see how the bread reacts, and this time I was experimenting with a baker's couche.

It seems like such a simple thing; it's just a linen cloth that the bread rests on during rising.

I baked some breads using one of Reinhart's recipes and let two rise on a cookie sheet and two on the couche to see what the differences were.

On the downside, transferring the puffy risen dough from the couche to a peel to a stone in the oven takes a little finesse. But it does make a difference in the final product, compared to breads that are left to rise on a cookie sheet and baked on that same sheet.

Here's what I wrote for a newspaper article about the couche:

Let The Games Begin

Ah, fall…the bounty of the harvest…the feeding frenzy that starts with Halloween, followed by the Thanksgiving feast, and ends with cooking, cookies, and cakes in December.

I’ve often said that cooking is my sport, and Thanksgiving is my Olympics. In the weeks leading up to the big event I’ll look for interesting twists on old favorites, try out unique ingredients, and bring out the fancy cooking equipment.

This year, I’ve got at least one innovative new ingredient to play with. King Arthur Flour has just introduced an unbleached cake flour which seems simple and obvious, given today’s trend towards natural ingredients.

The unbleached cake flour has been formulated so it behaves like bleached flour, but without the need for extra processing and chemicals. The unbleached flour isn’t as bright white, but you’re unlikely to notice the difference in a finished cake. Why did it take this long for someone to come up with this idea?

Speaking of flour, while bread-baking is a year-round event at my house, Thanksgiving bread-baking starts a few days early when I bake bread for the stuffing. Yes, I’m that fanatic.

When Thanksgiving is over and the turkey has become soup, what’s better than some crusty baguettes to dunk in the hot soup? Taking those baguettes to the next level is the latest device in my baking arsenal, the baker’s couche.

No, this isn’t where I nap while the bread bakes. A baker’s couche is a heavy cloth that’s used for proofing loaves of bread. The dough is laid onto the floured cloth and the fabric is bunched between the loaves to separate them.

The couche supports the dough so it rises up instead of spreading sideways. While a couche isn’t required, it gives bread a more professional result. The perfect test of it was this recipe.

Classic French Bread
Adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day by Peter Reinhart
Reinhart is one of the gurus of bread. This book is aimed at the home cook, with faster, easier techniques than in some of his other books.

Dough rising in a baker's couche.
5 1/3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 cups lukewarm water

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix for one minute by hand or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer. Let rest, uncovered, for five minutes.

Knead two minutes by hand or with the dough hook of a stand mixer. The dough should be smooth, supple and tacky, but not sticky. Adjust flour/water as needed.

Knead by hand for another minute on a lightly floured surface, then put the dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or up to four days.

About two hours before baking, remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide dough and shape as desired.

Note: To test the results of the couche, I formed four long thin loaves, and proofed two on a baking sheet and two using the couche.

Mist the top of the dough with spray oil, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 hours.

About 45 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 550 degrees. Put an ovenproof pan on the bottom rack of the oven – a cast iron frying pan works well.

About 15 minutes before baking, remove the plastic wrap from the loaves.

Just prior to baking, slash the loaves with a sharp knife. Transfer the loaves to the oven, and pour one cup of hot water into the pan on the bottom rack. Lower the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake 12 minutes, then rotate the bread and bake another 15 to 25 minutes, until done.

Note: If you can’t find unbleached cake flour locally, it’s available at the King Arthur Flour website, Don’t blame me if you get carried away with the amazing array of other flours, including the French and Italian flours and the new organic unbleached bread flour. Yes, it does make a difference. Try a few and see.