My French is rusty at best, but I'd translate pain à l'ancienne as "traditional bread," or perhaps "old-style bread." Implying something from a pre-industrial age, when all great-granny had was milled flour and a hearth oven and what her mother had taught her. This is indeed a rustic bread, a baguette or torpedo that lacks some finesse, but is a pleasure unto itself. Peter Reinhart, whose recipe I adapt here, says it's both one of his most celebrated recipes and one of his simplest. Mostly, it takes a little time, the dough requiring an overnight ferment in chilly temperatures (in the old days a deep root cellar, today the fridge). But simple? Absolutely. A meth-addled chimp could make this bread even on Throw Bananas At My Head Day. There isn't even any kneading required, not that that's a problem for chimps.
6 cups bread flour
2-1/4 teaspoons salt
1-3/4 teaspoons instant yeast
2-1/2 to 3 cups ice-cold water
semolina flour or corn meal, for dusting
little bit of vegetable or canola oil
-Preheat oven to 500 degrees. I use my pizza stone for baking, so I had it on the middle rack, and had a metal baking pan on the tip-top rack to serve as a steam tray.
-Mix flour, salt, yeast and 2-1/4 cups of cold water in a large bowl. Mix well, until dough is smooth and sticky on the bottom, but releases from the sides of the bowl. If it's too sticky, add a little flour; if it's too stiff and releases from the bottom too readily, add a little water. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer dough into it, roll dough in oil to lightly coat, cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge overnight.
-The next day, check the dough. It should have risen a bit, but probably not doubled in size, maybe halfway there. Leave the bowl out at room temperature for 2-3 hours for it to wake up and continue fermenting. When it actually has doubled in size (from its original, pre-fridge size, that is), gently turn it out onto a floured surface, trying to degas as little as possible while doing so. Think of it as an egg, handle gently. Roll the dough in flour to coat.
-Now here's where you decide what you want to make. I decided to use half for two baguettes and the other half for a larger torpedo-shaped loaf. So, cut it gently with a sharp knife; for baguettes stretch the dough long and thin (again, handling as gently as possible and dusting with flour when needed), and for a torpedo plump, rounded and fat. Place the shaped loaves on a semolina- or cornmeal-dusted piece of baking parchment (I just put that on my pizza peel), score with three or four diagonal slashes with a sharp, preferably serrated knife (wet the knife if the dough sticks), let rest for 5-10 minutes, then slide it, paper and all, onto the stone. If you don't have a stone just use a baking sheet, but seriously, get a stone.
-Steam blasts are important in the early bake, for giving it an extra-crusty fight-back texture. As soon as the loaves are in, pour one cup hot water into the baking pan you've got on the top rack, then close the door. Thirty seconds later give the oven walls five or six squirts of water from a spray bottle and repeat every thirty seconds in the first two minutes to help to give the crust the moisture it craves to develop a nice crustiness. After the final round of sprays, lower the oven temp to 475 and let bake for about twenty minutes, until the bread is a rich golden brown. Cool for 20 minutes (baguettes) or half an hour (torpedo) before diving in.
So there you have it. To tell the truth, I was happier with the torpedo, as it was more versatile for slicing and sandwiches. But the baguettes were great for simple snacking, too, so it's up to you. The ingredients are as basic as you can get: flour, yeast, salt, water, a little cornmeal for dusting. That's it. It's time and the slowly voracious chemical actions of the yeasties that give you that wonderful complexity, that wondrous creamy-nutty flavor that you get when you tear a hunk off and cram it in your eager piehole. Not to mention that, for those of us on a budget, sixty cents worth of flour, twenty cents worth of yeast and two cents worth of salt will make you a nice collection of kickass loaves.
The trick to this bread is to keep things cold and slow. Ice-cold water, cold ferment, delay the yeast from its gobbling, delay, delay. Make the yeasties work as slowly as possible. If you're really patient, give it two days in the fridge.
Above, two baguettes. Here, one torpedo.
The crust-end of the torpedo was a glorious place to tuck a grilled chicken sausage with a little apple-onion relish. The texture fights back against your teeth at first, then surrenders in gentle creamy-nutty waves. Nom.
Happy baking, Groupthink!