‘Mise en place’…French for “everything in its place”. For cooks and bakers, the understanding and practice of this simple term are the foundations for all successful dishes. In many ways, ‘mise en place’ is a way of life; it provides structure and organization both within and outside the kitchen; assembling your ingredients, pre-measuring, cleaning as you go, preparing the oven, thinking two or three steps forward, not being distracted – ‘mise en place’.
I had prepared my “mother sponge” and kept feeding it, hoping that it would not die or get “infected” before I got to use it. My friend Katie had lost her “mother” while developing it into a rye based sponge, it developed a mold and she had to toss it. A week after starting me own, it was thriving and giving off a very strong smell, lots of bubbles, and had been in and out of the fridge a couple times.
So I had the sponge, now what? I needed some good advice, sound recipes, a couple of tools, and some time away from the ski hill to immerse myself in the craft – ‘Mise en place’. I did not want to just jump into a batch of bread and find out I didn’t have what I needed.
I set out one day to Barnes and Nobles and picked up Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”. My step-bro Paul told me I wouldn’t need any other book on the subject and from my early readings in it, he’s right.
If you are considering baking bread or just want to see a great cook book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice is it.
I also picked up a nice glass jar and lid from the store and transferred my sponge into its new home. I spent the next couple nights and mornings reading through the early chapters on bread history, ‘mise en place’, flour and yeast types, the baker’s formulas, and generally getting a better understanding of those processes I was about to engage in. After another 40″ week of snow, we got some clear weather and my legs needed a break. The time had come.
I decided to make some ciabatta for the first go round. I knew it would be a good use of the sponge, fairly straight forward, and has always been one of my favorites. The recipe called for the use of a ‘poolish’, which is just another type of pre-fermented dough starter, very similar to my ‘sponge’. Basically, you begin one dough to ferment for several hours to a day or more, and add that to the rest of the recipe. Whether its a ‘biga’, ‘pate fermentee’, or ‘poolish’, the idea is the same; you pre-ferment a small batch of dough to aid in the fermentation of your larger batch. The advantages are enhanced flavors from the prolonged development of the sugars and manipulation of the starches. I will be using other types of ‘sponges’ for other breads and will fill you in on those as they come up in later ‘chapters’.
Instead of making a new sponge, or ‘poolish’, I used my prized mother in the glass jar. I removed more then half the starter the night before and threw it out, then ‘fed’ (equal parts flour and water) more then double what I took out. I let this sit out all night and it was ready in the morning, bubbling away and looking “alive”. By letting it feed throughout the night, as opposed to just for a few hours, you get a more rich, stonger flavor from the starter. As the weeks, months, and years go by, you starter will get more complex if you feed it regularly.
Here’s a quick recipe for ciabatta:
You combine the flour, yeast, and salt together, then add the wet ‘poolish’ and water. Mix with a wooden spoon until everything is distributed equally. I then wet my hands started to work the dough in the bowl for about five minutes, using my hand like a dough hook and stretching the dough as you mix it. You have to repeatedly dip your hand in water (to keep it clean) and add flour as needed to maintain the silky texture your aiming to have by the end of the mixing. This is where a mixer would really help the home baker.
I concluded that I did not work the dough long enough in the end. It did not develop the large pockets of air (gas) that is typical of ciabatta, the length of mixing (stretching and manipulation of starches) was part of that. I also ‘degassed’ the dough a bit too much after its initial ‘rest’ of 30 minutes. Basically, I worked it too much while stretching it and some of the “lightness” of the dough was lost. I think as my starter develops more and more, it was also aid in that texture I’m shooting for.
After mixing the dough, flour your countertop and carefully put the dough on the floured surface. Then you’ll want to lightly pull the dough into a rectangle and fold like a letter (two seams). Do this twice (I did it like 5 times…oops), lightly mist with spray oil, dust with flour, and let the dough rest for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Once the dough has risen again (almost doubled in size, will depend on temp in room), pull and fold the dough again. I cut my dough ball into three, then pulled and folded. I then set up a ‘couche’ which is basically a flour sack towel used to separate the dough and let proof.
By setting the dough balls next to one another and separated by the fabric, each ball of dough “holds” the other up and provides some support during the final resting period.
After letting the dough rest on the ‘couche’ for another hour, it was time to bake. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees (550 if your oven will allow it) and set up a deep pan on the bottom rack (for creating steam). Once the oven is ready, put in trays of bread (on parchment paper w/ semolina flour) and pour about a cup of water into your steam pan. The steam helps keep the crust from over drying when baking and also aids in the caramelization of the sugars on the crust.
The final product tasted awesome, less then an hour after baking we devoured one loaf (the other two were gifts for a party!) and went out to see a show. Like I said before, there is going to be some tweaking of the process for me on this particular bread, but my first bread baking adventure was a huge success.
More to come on my Pan a l’ancienne…”bread of the ancients”
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