Saturday, August 20, was a busy day in the kitchen. And a bit more daunting than normal. Friends had invited us to dinner that evening and asked if I would bring some bread. When I asked what they would like, the answer was “something that would go well with snoek paté.” Did I mention that Marthinius had previously been executive chef and partner in an up-scale restaurant? And did I also mention that I’ve never had my baking critiqued by a chef whose training is in classic French cuisine? Hence the daunting.
Well. A challenge. Bread to go with snoek paté. Whatever that might turn out to be.
I wound up choosing two breads: Reinhardt’s pain a l’ancienne and a pain de compagne. Both French in origin or influence. Neither one required complex techniques but each offered layers of flavour from levains or long ferments; one somewhat more ethereal and one more hearty. (Hedging, don’t you know.) And each being something that was started the previous evening with the final dough preparation (the pain de compagne) or shaping and baking (the pain a l’ancienne) on Saturday. Because each was at different stages of readiness Saturday morning, it also gave me better opportunity to manage oven timing without a train wreck between two different breads that had to be baked at the exact same time.
And, since we were also invited to a braai (barbecue) on Sunday afternoon, I followed those with Portugese Sweet Bread using Mark Sinclair’s formula.
The breads, happily, proceeded without a hitch. Just as happily, temperatures were starting to moderate; enough that the house temperature was in the low to mid-60s instead of the 50s. I still spiked the final pain de compagne dough with about a half-teaspoon of yeast as insurance and used a make-shift proofer for the bulk ferment.
Handling the pain a l’ancienne dough is, except for temperature, not unlike handling taffy or melted mozzarella cheese. It is so wet that it has very little internal support and wants to stick to everything. Nevertheless, I was able to get it divided and “shaped” as per instructions. One or two were rather raggedy in appearance, so they didn’t make the trip to dinner that evening. Which is not to say that they weren’t eaten. In spite of knowing how difficult it is to slash such wet dough, I made the attempt. The slashes were not a thing of beauty but they did serve a purpose. You can see in the photo that the greatest expansion occurred at the slash locations. Rather than repeatedly opening the oven for steaming by spritzing, I relied on pouring boiling water into a preheated pan in the oven to generate steam. The oven in this house only heats up to 230C, which is a bit less than I needed, so I relied on the convection setting to boost the, um, “effective” temperature. While I would have liked to have a prettier bread, this gave me a baguette-like bread with great flavour but without the technical demands of producing a classic baguette. I’ve tried but my present setup just doesn’t permit me to hit that target even if my technique is bang on, which it frequently is not.
The pain de compagne is more familiar to me and went very smoothly. The only glitch was my being a bit impatient about getting it into the oven. I could have waited another 20-30 minutes at those temperatures and avoided a couple of small blowouts. Other than that, some very tasty bread.
The Portugese Sweet Bread is lovely stuff. The dough is easy to handle and absolutely silky compared to the whole-grain lean breads that I usually make. I have no complaints with the process or the finished bread.
Eventually it was time for dinner, the moment of truth. Marthinius made the snoek paté with snoek that he had smoked at home. I don’t know entirely what was in it (mayonnaise? minced celery? other?) but my wife, who is ordinarily not a lover of things involving fish, thought it was absolutely wonderful. I concurred. After asking me to describe each of the breads and then sampling each, Marthinius decided that he liked both (whew!) but preferred the pain a l’ancienne with the paté. I think the complex play of flavours appealed to him.
There were two main courses. One was a deboned haunch of springbok, larded with garlic cloves, lightly smoked, then wrapped with bacon and finished in a slow oven. The other was chicken breasts stuffed with feta cheese and spinach. Both were excellent. They were accompanied by baby corn, roasted sweet potatoes, and a pilaf. Dessert was a vinegar pudding, as it is called by the Afrikaners. Those from a British background would probably call it a nutmeg pudding. It was a thoroughly enjoyable meal and evening.
The weather on Sunday was absolutely gorgeous. There was plenty of warm sun and a cool breeze. With chicken, steak and boerwors on the braai, delicious side dishes, and lots of conversation, it made for a marvellous afternoon.
We are definitely happy about moving back to the States soon but we will miss times like these with friends like these.