The things I'll do for a great sandwich
A few months back while I was browsing some Vietnamese food sites, particularly [this one]  I found myself lingering on the pages featuring Bahn Mi sandwiches with all their various fillings, the most common being pork in some fashion, fried, grilled, pulled etc, as well as ones using chicken, prawns, crab, there doesn't seem to be any hard and fast rules when it comes the protein component of the sandwich. However the only bread to use for making them is a typical French baguette, a bread I seldom bake at home, mainly because of their very short shelf life. I love a fresh baguette just a few hours out of the oven, but if I can't finish it in a day, well... not so much. Regardless, I was determined to make the bahn mi using a fresh baked demi baguette and deal with whatever leftovers remained as best as possible. The first item on the agenda was to pickle some thin slices of carrot and daikon for garnishing the sandwich. I wasn't in any rush so they had a good 3 weeks pickling away in the garage before I was happy with the flavour. The next item was to get in some practice actually mixing and hand shaping baguettes. We used to make our own baguettes in our shop years ago but they were always shaped using a molder so my hand skills definately needed some upgrading. I decided to use Jeffrey Hamelman's Poolish Baguette from "Bread" for the first mix since I've always found his formulae so reliable. The results were just OK, a fact I chalked up more to my lack of experience with the process than Mr Hamelman's formula. The crumb was too tight, lacking the larger irregular sized holes that it should have, but it tasted allright, considering. I should note that the flour I was using was Canadian Organic AP flour, a generic brand from the local supermarket, but more about that later on. For the second batch I went with the poolish baguette formula from Michel Suas' "Advanced Bread & Pastry", which resulted in almost the same type of crumb as the one from "Bread". The shaping was better, it tasted fine, but not there yet. Next I tried my own version using a levain with 100% rye starter that had a great flavour, not like any French style baguette I'm familiar with, but tasty and with a better crumb structure than the previous two. Still not what I wanted for the bahn mi though.Not one of the demi baguettes made so far had been used to make a bahn mi with, instead used for sub sandwiches which I eventually grew tired of. The project was put on hold while I did some other things and in the meantime gave some thought to blending a softer (10%) Cdn. pastry flour with the AP to see if that might help things along. Our Canadian AP flour typically has a protein content of 13.3% so a little higher than U.S. AP flour, and higher still I'm guessing than French flour or whatever type is used in Vietnam. Based purely on speculation I used a 75/25% blend of AP and pastry flour in the next mix, this time using Steve B's Baguettes a la Bouabsa from his very good site [breadcetera.com] .
That the formula uses a straight mix, retarded for 21 hours, held a lot of appeal for me schedule wise, being able to mix it an hour or two before going to bed, and have it ready for shaping an hour after getting home from work the following day. The only changes I made to the formula/process were to substitute the AP/Pastry blend for Meunere Milanese flour in Steve's formula, and to give it two stretch and folds on the bench over it's one hour bulk ferment, rather than the 6-8 in the bowl every 20 minutes Steve calls for. This time all the pieces came together to produce something I was happy with, a light,crusty loaf with a toasted wheaty flavour and enough irregular holes in the crumb to do the sandwich justice.
Many thanks to SteveB for making this recipe available!
From here on it was easy. Two small pieces of pork shoulder, say 60-65 grams total, pounded very thin with a mallet or rolling pin, marinated in lime juice, garlic, fish sauce, and sweet dark soy sauce for 1-2 hours, dredged in seasoned flour and deep fried till crispy. Toast or grill the bread, spread with a lime flavoured mayonnaise, add the pork and sprinkle with course sea salt, top with fried shallots, a [Vietnamese Slaw] , and fresh pea or sunflower shoots, a sprig or two of fresh coriander perhaps...and that's it!
Some of the items mentioned above such as the pickled carrot-daikon, and fried shallots aren't visible in the photo, but they're in there somwhere, just buried under everything else.
I know it may sound like a lot of time and effort to go to just to make a sandwich, but take my trials and tribulations of making the right sort of demi baguette out of the equation and it's no more trouble than making many of the world's great sandwiches. Give or take a few minutes, it's right up there with the likes of such classics as the Rueben, Cubano, Croque Monsieur, Porchetta, Philly Cheese Steak and Lobster Roll, to name just a few. Now that I have a baguette formula and process that I'm happy with, this sandwich goes on my All Star list of street food to be made again.