French Country Boule & Rosemary Potato Focaccia

French Country Boule & Rosemary Potato Focaccia

I’ve been writing and working up a storm this week, and sadly haven’t had time to share pics and recipes of the bread I baked for my buddy Dean’s birthday. He’d been harassing me for bread for years, and I finally caved in. (You’d think a guy with a license plate frame that says “I’d Rather Be Baking Bread” wouldn’t take so damn long to throw a loaf or two in the oven for a friend!)

His questions to me online were:

  1. Are you coming to my birthday party?
  2. Are you bringing bread?

Suffice it to say that I needed to get my ass in the kitchen. I decided to bake two different breads, not sure exactly what he wanted and not wanting to ruin the surprise, since I told him that I didn’t have time to make any bread, even though I’d already made the starters a few hours before he’d asked. (I know. Slick, right?)

"Poolish" Bread Starter

Poolish Bread Starter

The starters comprised of a very loose, soupy slurry known as poolish for both breads, and I also made a firmer starter known as pâte fermentée for the boule that was similar in moisture and texture to the dough into which it would be incorporated. I let these sit out, covered, at room temperature overnight, and could not wait to catch that wonderful yeasty, slightly sour aroma that I have been away from for far too long.

Besides adding mountains of flavor and complexity to your breads, they contribute to the structure and improve the texture of the final loaves as well. This time of pre-ferment as it is called allows yeast to activate, multiply, and acclimatize to your environment and ingredients after their long nap in a dry, dormant stage. It also increases enzymatic activity in the flour, which helps impart, well, “maturity” to your bread as my friend and hero Peter Reinhart so aptly puts it.

“The very presence of pâte fermentée in a formula improves most bread, quantum leaping it in maturity and flavor.” — Peter Reinhart, in his quintessential The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread

For the following recipes, please try to use unbleached bread flour as it really does have a markedly better outcome. I recommend King Arthur brand. It costs a little extra, but it’s well worth it. If you’re just going to use crap, why not save some time and go buy a loaf of supermarket bread instead? Also, for these measurements, do not pack the flour tightly. Due to variations in flour, humidity, etc., you may need a little more or less flour or water for your dough. Don’t be afraid to adjust. Ultimately, you are looking for a dough that is slightly tacky to the touch, but never sticky.

French Country Boule Recipe

Country Boule Dough Rising

Country Boule Dough Rising

For the pâte fermentée:
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 c warm water (100-105°F is ideal)
3/4 c bread flour (unbleached)
1/4 tsp fine sea salt

For the poolish:
1 c bread flour
2/3 c water
1 Tbsp of yeast water from the pâte fermentée

For the final dough:
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
2 Tbsp warm water (100-105°F is ideal)
2 1/4 c bread flour
1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 Tbsp wheat bran (optional)

The night before your bake, make your starters in separate bowls, making sure they are large enough to allow for the starters to at least double in size overnight. Activate your yeast in warm water, and allow to bloom for 5-10 minutes. Mix together the remaining ingredients for each starter, using only 1 Tbsp of the yeasty water in the poolish, and adding the rest to the pâte fermentée.

On the morning of your bake, repeat activation instructions for the yeast and water called for under “final dough.” Combine flour and salt in a large mixing bowl, add in newly bloomed yeast, poolish, and pâte fermentée. Mix with a wooden spoon (or stand mixer with a dough hook attachment) for several minutes until a ball of dough forms. Knead by hand or with the dough hook for 2-3 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Knead again for 3-4 minutes, cover, and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in size (allow anywhere from 1.5-3 hours).

Rustic French Boule - Yum!

Rustic French Boule - Yum!

Preheat your oven to 475°F about an hour before baking. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and divide into two equal pieces. Shape into tight rounds, trying not to overly deflate them, making sure any seams in the dough are underneath the rounds. Place onto a baking sheet, allowing room for doubling and cover with plastic wrap. Once the dough has doubled in size, remove plastic wrap, spray lightly with a misting of water, and dust lightly with flour. Using quick motions with a serrated knife or lame, make several slashes in the dough both to allow for expansion and for decorative purposes.

Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of your oven, spraying the inner walls fairly heavily with water to create a good amount of steam. Close the oven door, lower the temperature to 425°F, and bake until the loaves reach an internal temperature of 190°F, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom (approximately 25-35 minutes). Allow to cool completely on a cooling rack before slicing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 — My Rosemary Potato Focaccia Recipe!