I think I'm starting to get the hang of this...
Between last weekend's experiments with varying hydration levels, locating rye flour, and tuning up my sourdough starter over the past few days, things took a turn for the better with this weekend's bake. If I had to rank the importance of those three, it would be a difficult choice. I'd probably nominate the improved starter as the most important but that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't obtained some rye flour. Of course, having a notion where things were headed because of the hydration experiments gave me confidence in what to expect, so, I suppose I'm back to where I started...
I'll start with the starter. It was initially propagated with whole wheat flour and orange juice (didn't find pineapple juice at the store until several days later) and has always had an intense acidity. It's residents may also have been a little too active in pumping out enzymes because it tended to go gooey after a few hours at room temps (it's summer here in South Africa) in spite of being maintained at approximately 50% hydration. I took a tablespoon or so of the starter, mixed it with another couple tablespoons of mineral water and enough rye flour to make a soft paste. I repeated this regimen with morning and evening feedings for two days. Over the next 3-4 days, I introduced bread flour until the mix was mostly bread flour and a couple of pinches of rye flour, always discarding all but a tablespoonful before the feeding. By the end of the third day, the starter was much bubblier and the odor and flavor were much less acidic. The starter now has more of a yeasty/fruity odor.
With a now lively, less-acidulated starter in hand, I decided that Leader's pain de compagne looked like a good candidate for a trial run. The hydration level is approximately 67%, which is right in the sweet spot of the previous week's hydration tests. All of the required ingredients were on hand, so I mixed up the liquid levain on Friday evening before going to bed. The next morning it was evident that the levain had more than tripled overnight and was already subsiding, so I mixed the dough before breakfast. Here's where I have a slight quibble with the process. Leader directs you to mix up the final dough, sans salt and levain, let it autolyze for 20 minutes, then mix in the salt, followed by the liquid levain. Nothing unorthodox there, except that the final dough without the levain is about 50% hydration. Try mixing a liquid levain into bagel dough! By hand! At least I had the good sense to chop the dough into small pieces before starting to mix in the levain (the directions do not suggest this step). Still, it was a long, slow, laborious process to mix the dough and the levain into a uniform mass. Toward the end, I was effectively doing stretch and folds with the dough in the bowl, trying to get everything folded in and combined. Needless to say, I settled for a few rounds of French folds instead of the recommended 12 minutes of kneading on the bench. I can attest that the dough was well developed by that point.
Bulk fermention, shaping, final fermentation and baking all proceeded pretty much as advertised in the book. It was extremely gratifying to see strong oven spring with this bread, after having had a few less-than-stellar bakes.
Here's how the finished bread looked:
I like the coloration of the crust. Apparently I'm starting to get better acquainted with the oven, too.
The crumb, shown below, has a mix of smaller and larger alveoli. Not classic pain de compagne texture but it will work well for sandwiches, which is how most of it will be consumed.
The crust, though thin, was more chewy than crunchy. After sitting overnight in plastic, it has softened considerably. The flavor is definitely more French than San Francisco: only slightly tangy and thoroughly wheaty. The crumb is somewhat moist and feels slightly cool upon the tongue. Very pleasing to the palate.
All in all, a very pleasing outcome.