Friday, January 23, 2009

Mixed-starter bread, first attempt: baguette épi

(Update: I've added photos of batch two at the bottom of this post)

I've been hit by a new bread-baking wave these days. Over the last two days I made Smitten Kitchen's light wheat sandwich bread, English muffins, and then felt bold enough to launch into a two-day, mouth-watering recipe from Baking with Julia, which I received over the holidays.

Mixed-starter bread is not a quick bread. You start off with a piece of "old dough," with which you create a first starter that ferments all day. Then you use that to create a second starter, which ferments half a day to overnight, then you make the dough, let it rise, fold it, let it rise again, shape your breads, let them rise, and then bake them with all the steam-creating drama described in my post about pain à l'ancienne.

Fewh! The pain à l'ancienne I was so proud of was a piece of cake compared to this project.

I decided to shape the dough into four wheat-stalk baguettes, or "épis." The result was wonderful. Was it perfect? Before I give you my opinion, have a look at the photos...

The tips may seem quite dark but I assure you it wasn't over-cooked

Oh I wish you could have heard the crust crackle

Pretty even underneath, don't you think?

Now, it would be tempting to stop after these photos, give the recipe, and leave my readers with the impression I didn't encounter any problems...

But for your information/enjoyment, I will share my mishaps with you, ie the other three loaves from the same batch:

Let me introduce Beautiful Epi's ugly siblings: Funny, Snake and Runt. Funny slipped a little as I put it in the oven, Snake (which was supposed to be the easiest one of all, a simple baguette) completely refused to slide into the oven and dragged Runt half-way out with it. I had to remove a section from Runt.

So disaster struck three out of my four breads. And yet, I'm still pleased. Ugly or not, they tasted fabulous: crackling crust, elastic holy crumb with lots of flavor, we wolfed them down in no time. Yes I'll have to learn a trick or two about shaping baguettes (and especially getting them into an oven), but I'm confident that whatever comes out of the oven with this recipe will be quite edible. And possibly entertaining too.

The beauty and one of the beasts. I think Funny has a lot of charm.

I wouldn't know how to recreate this shape if I tried!

Recipe: Mixed Starter Bread
Source: Baking with Julia, by Dorie Greenspan
Recipe originally from Steve Sullivan

[Important: you can view a detailed demonstration of this recipe on the PBS web site (gosh I love their on-line videos). Not only do you get Steve Sullivan's tips and demonstration, but also Julia Child's charming commentary. And given all the information you can get from this video, I'll only provide a summary of the recipe here. You can see photos of the process below the recipe.]

The first-stage, or old-dough starter
- A walnut-sized (1/2 ounce, or 14g) piece of fully risen dough (pizza, or other white flour bread dough.) [I used English muffin dough]
- 1/4 cup (60g) warm water (105°F to 115°F, or 40-46°C)
- 2/3 cup (85-93g*) unbleached all-purpose flour

Cut the dough into small bits, soak in the water five minutes to soften. Mix in the flour, first with a spoon then knead. You're not trying to develop gluten, just incorporate all the ingredients.

Put the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rise in a warm place (between 80°F and 85°F or 27-29°C).

[I heated a glass of water in the microwave then placed the bowl with the glass of hot water in the microwave and closed the door. Periodically I took the dough out and reheated the water, to make sure the environment stayed warm.]

After 8 hours the starter dough should be bubbly, soft and sticky, and springy.

The second-stage starter
- The first-stage starter (above)
- 1/4 cup (60g) warm water (same temps as above)
- 3/4 cup (94-105g*) unbleached all purpose flour

Make this second sponge like the first. Rise for 4 hours in a warm environment (same temp as above). It should more than double.

After the rise, the sponge, when stretched, will show long, lacy strands of gluten and smell sweet and yeasty, even though no yeast has been added. Chill the risen sponge for at least 1 hour, but no more than 8 hours, before proceeding.

[Update: for batch 2 I forgot to put the sponge in the fridge overnight so it got very yeasty and alcoholy with the excess fermentation. However the bread still developed nicely, and tasted wonderful, if a little sour.]

The final dough
- 1 1/4 cups (296g) cool water (about 78°F or 25°C)
- 1/2 tspn SAF instant yeast (not rapid rise) or 3/4 tspn active dry yeast
- The second-stage starter (above)
- 3 1/3 cups (416-466g*) unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 TB (12-13g) kosher salt
[I don't know much about kosher salt. I used regular, and rather than measuring a TB I tried to use the 2% of flour weight rule, which was less than one TB, but somehow the bread could have used a little more salt. Maybe I made a math mistake.]

You are advised to use a stand mixer here. Put the water into the bowl of the mixer [hold back a little water to add at the same time as the salt later] sprinkle the yeast, and stir by hand to mix. Deflate the second stage starter, break it into pieces, add it to the bowl and allow it to soften for 5 min. Add the flour, pulse the machine on and off so the flour doesn't fly out, mix on low speed until flour is incorporated then let the dough rest for 10 minutes to give the flour time to absorb the water.

With the machine running at low speed, add the left-over water and sprinkle the salt onto the dough. Increase speed to medium high and mix and knead the dough for 5 to 8 minutes. The dough will be very soft and moist and may ride up the hook. Push the dough down periodically.

Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest in a warm place (between 80°F and 85°F or 27-29°C) for about 1 1/2 hours. The dough will probably double in bulk and it should have a network of bubbles visible under the surface.

[This somehow never worked with my schedule. So I let the dough rise more slowly, at a room temperature of about 19°C. Worked well too.]

Final [well almost final, there's still the rise after shaping!] rise. Fold the dough down on itself a few times, without punching down, in order to redistribute the yeast, then cover again and let rise for 45 minutes.

"After this last rise, you must shape and bake the dough. If you refrigerate the dough now, or do anything else to retard it, you will have a sourdough bread, which is not what this dough is meant to be."

[Update: Yeah well, as mentioned above, with batch 2 I made a mistake with starter two and definitely got some sour notes in my bread. But it still tasted wonderful. So you can't follow the recommendations exactly, don't worry too much.]

Shaping: I am too tired to type up the instructions for shaping. Look at the video. Also I am sure there are many resources on the web for shaping baguettes, couronnes, épis or pain fendu (which is what Sullivan demonstrates in the video above). Finally this site has good tips for shaping an épi.

Baking: If you have divided the dough into four baguettes (or mutant baguettes) as I did, preheat and prepare the oven as described here and bake for 20 minutes. It's not the exact instructions from the recipe but close enough, and the ones I used. If you have any doubt, consult the video!

Process photos:

This is the first starter, before the 8-hour fermentation

After 8 hours in a warm environment

The starter has been chopped into pieces and left to soak for 5 minutes. Funny looking isn't it?

Starter number 2

Starter number 2 after its rise

The freshly kneaded dough.

The dough has risen!

Look at the web of gluten!

Trying to flatten the dough for shaping made all these big bubbles appear

Look at that bubble! This sort of thing makes me laugh as I bake...

I thought these baguette shapes looked pretty good nestled in their floured dish towel...

Ah ha. Now I see it. For one thing they were too long for my oven.

Oh my. This is where the trouble begins. How do you get the loaves off the insufficiently floured towel? You what, flip them onto the peel? Ha.

These still look semi-OK, though a little dry and limp (maybe they rose for too long?)

Here it started getting ugly. When dough this wet sticks together or to the towel, good luck sliding it onto anything...

Eek, what an ugly baguette. And this was before it fell out of the oven onto the oven door (that's how it became Snake, and its peel-mate, Runt). At least the spill drew the attention away from my pathetic attemps at scoring the dough. I had a razor blade, I held it like the book said, what did I do wrong?

I had to finish with something prettier... Though I didn't get good photos of the insides, trust me, the crumb of this bread is lovely.

Well, I have another second-stage starter in the fridge as I type, tomorrow is a new bread-baking day for me!

Update the next day: Oops, I was so busy typing up this post I didn't realize the starter was not in the fridge. So it spent a nice warm night out in my microwave oven. But the bread I made with it was still delicious, if a little sour.

I also had better luck shaping a wreath, method described here. Sorry about the bad lighting of the photos, it was dark by the time I got my breads out of the oven.

In need of yeast-based inspiration? Head on over to Wild Yeast's regular YeastSpotting roundups.


Gay said...

I'll bet the house smelled wonderful!! I really like the odd ones best.

Tartelette said...!!! You did a wonderful wonderful job!!
I can relate to the odd shapes, moving baguettes and flour all over the place and my apron. I appreciate this so much knowing all the work that went into it. Be proud!

Tanya said...

It's funny, I was just thinking of making an epi baguette this week and now you've given me a new recipe to try. My epi shaping is terrible so I'm glad to have some tips. Yours are so lovely. I love the mistakes. Now I won't feel so stupid in my own kitchen.

Snooky doodle said...

ohh that baguets looks so so so strange ! you thought I was saying gorgeous don't you? Ha I m only joking. these look great. I like the spiky shape you gave them and they re baked just right. My first attept at baguettes was a whole disaster had to throw them in the bin. Yours are so beautiful. you must be a bread maker. Wish I could taste some i m imagining its wonderful taste ahh!!

Larissa said...

Hello Astrid,
I love this recipe for baguettes. They are irresistible especially when they are still warm!!

My foodblog is called "Larissa Today" at

I have added your blog to my blogroll and would be tickled pink if you would add my one to your blogroll/link-list too.

So warm regards,

Aran said...

astrid, you always delight us with great projects and thorough explanations. epis are my favorite shape because there is so much crust. the end of the bread is always my favorite part!

Susan/Wild Yeast said...

I would hate to meet you in a dark alley with the points of that epi headed in my direction. Perfect epi!

Rachel@fairycakeheaven said...

Wow these are amazing, very artisan looking!!!

Claudia said...

What a fantastic bread. Beautiful, perfect rings. I would love to try to make it sometime even if I am not a good bread maker, but your instructions are so inviting...



linda said...

You're so patient! Love the shape of the epi baguette (and of its siblings too) I'd like to take a bite, they look delicious :)

Spinach Tiger said...

I was led here through wild yeast. I really enjoyed your story about your mishaps. I've had quite a few myself. My first pasta ALL went into the trash. I'll be back to visit. And, I'll have that bread with some butter. I can just hear the crackle of that crust.

melivanilla said...

Your epis look wonderful Astrid! I got to know your blog when I was looking for croissant making tips... great blog, and what a courageous baker you are! Bravo!

Flo Makanai said...

Superbs! Bravo.

Anina Marcus said...