Wednesday, February 11, 2009

miche poilâne

Boulangerie Poilâne is a Parisian bakery, founded in 1932 by Pierre Poilâne. It is most famous for its huge miches (or large boules). What makes Poilâne's miches distinctive is that they are sourdough loaves made using stone-ground wheat flour and sea salt from Guérande and are baked in a wood-fired oven. You can actually mail order a Miche Poilâne direct from the bakery to the U.S. for about $48. A Poilâne-style miche is featured on the cover of Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice.

These facts notwithstanding, the primary reason I decided to bake the Poilâne-style Miche from the Bread Baker's Apprentice was because I had to feed my existing sourdough starter and I didn't want to discard the remaining 7 ounces of old starter. And as luck would have it, the Poilâne-style Miche uses exactly 7 ounces! I actually set out to make petit pains Poilâne -- smaller boules -- because Peter had noted in the book that many testers felt the full-sized miche was a bit unwieldy. However, making multiple, albeit smaller, loaves would've required more available space in my refrigerator (the loaves have to be retarded overnight in bannetons, or proofing bowls, in order to keep their shape). A single giant bowl takes up less fridge real estate than two or three large bowls, so a giant miche it would have to be.

Making the miche was a three-day affair. The first day, I mixed the starter (using the sourdough starter, flour and water). The second day, the starter was added to the remaining ingredients, resulting in a monster of a dough. The dough is actually too large to be mixed in a stand mixer at this point so it has to be hand-kneaded for 10 to 15 minutes. I haven't hand-kneaded anything for more than a couple of minutes since I got my stand mixer last fall, and let me tell you, it's a workout. Time never moves as slowly as when you're vigorously kneading a gigantic five-pound mass of dough. But... it is a really nice dough to work with -- slightly sticky -- and I had forgotten the sensation of feeling a dough take shape beneath your hands. You can actually feel the dough transition and the gluten do its thing as you knead it. I knew this was true intuitively (it's why many bakers eschew the use of stand mixers and other gadgets and work their dough by hand), but I really needed to experience it again to remember.

After the kneading, the dough rests for awhile at room temp, and then is shaped and put in the refrigerator to retard overnight. The next day, the dough is baked on a stone in a steam-filled oven et voilà! Une miche Poilâne. Below is C. holding the miche (and no, he isn't holding it closer to the camera; it really is wider than he is!)

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