We were invited to a Cajun-themed dinner party last evening at a friend's house here in Pretoria. Not the easiest thing to pull off in South Africa but it turned out pretty well, considering the limitations.
Knowing that there would be gumbo and jambalaya and etouffe, I wanted to take some bread that would be good all by itself and as a sop for all those wonderful broths and gravies. Preferably, it would resemble something one might find in Louisiana; maybe in a poboy sandwich. I came across Eric's (ehanner) post about utilizing Bernard Clayton's Blue Ribbon French Bread and figured that might be a good starting point. Since I have the book (The Complete Book of Breads), it was easy to reference the recipe.
Clayton's approach is a fairly quick, straight dough method. Wanting to build more flavor, I chose to build a sponge from 4 cups of water, 6 cups of flour and about a tablespoon of my approximately 50% hydration starter that would have been discarded as part of a refresh. (Note that I doubled the recipe.) That was assembled around 11:00 p.m. This is what it looked like around 10:00 a.m. the following day:
Overnight temperature in the house was around 72ºF. I'd estimate that the sponge had expanded by at least 25%. The butter, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the sponge. It was just convenient to leave it in the same bowl while it came to room temperature. (No, this is not a classic French bread; more of an Indiana interpretation of a French bread.)
The only other alterations that I made were to omit the powdered milk, simply because I didn't have any on hand, and to reduce the yeast to 1 teaspoon. I elected to use some yeast just to ensure that the rest of the fermentation went at a steady pace even though the sponge was more aerated than I had anticipated, given the small inoculation. The rest of the ingredients and process were by the book.
Even though I used AP flour, the gluten in the sponge was well-developed after nearly 12 hours of hydrating. Because of the high percentage of pre-fermented flour (approximately 60%), the dough was quite extensible. Having made a lot of whole-grain breads in recent months, including quite a few ryes, this white-flour dough was a big change. It was much smoother, less sticky, and felt more "pillowy" while it was being kneaded.
I steamed the oven as much as I could, hoping for a thin, crisp crust. The loaves expanded beautifully, producing big ears and grignes on the loaves, as below:
The crust turned out to be thicker and harder than I had hoped, more crunchy than crisp, so I didn't quite hit my target for this bake. The crumb, which won't be pictured since none came home with us, was much less open than a classic baguette but more open than one would expect for a dough that had been kneaded 10 minutes. The flavor was rich and only mildly sour. Our resident Cajun was overjoyed with it and wanted to know how I was able to produce this kind of bread with a home oven. He loaded up most of what hadn't been eaten and went home with visions of pain perdu in his head. We'll be scheduling a play date in the kitchen one of these weekends.
And for my Northern Hemisphere friends, one last picture as a reminder that winter isn't forever: