I bought the Bread Baker’s Apprentice for its cover (and because my sister wisely recommended it to me), but I fell in love with it for it’s l’Ancienne recipe.
Pain à l’ancienne was the first BBA bread I made from the book — long before the BBA Challenge was a twinkle in Nicole’s eye. In fact, it was the only recipe in the book I had made before the BBA Challenge began. This was one of the biggest reasons why I joined the Challenge. I’ve long been guilty of buying and reading a cookbook (yes, I actually read them), but only making a handful of recipes from it before moving on to the next. We have a bookcase full of great cookbooks, and yet I keep going back to the tried and true recipes, the favorites. I don’t know why.
I saw the BBA Challenge as a way to force myself to really explore a cookbook, just one for now, in depth. I assumed I’d learn a few new things about baking bread, and maybe find a few new favorites, and, by being part of a group, get to know a few fellow bakers. Boy, I had no idea how much I’d learn, how many people I’d come to know, how many new favorites I’d have, how far this would take me from a decent bread baker to someone so comfortable with dough that I would confidently put together a couple breads in a single evening, while tending a sourdough starter, and mixing up a pre-ferment for tomorrow’s bread.
And it all started with pain à l’ancienne.
For the Challenge, rather than make the regular baguettes as written (which I have made many, many times), I decided to try two variations. The first was the pizza variation. This is made by simply taking the fermented l’ancienne dough, dividing it into 6-8 pieces. flouring them well, and then stretching them into pizza doughs. From there, it’s just a matter of putting on the toppings and baking. It made a fine pizza, but I don’t think it was the best way to use this dough. The depth of flavor was lost in the resulting pizza, and the dough is difficult enough to handle that it didn’t seem worthwhile making it into pizza. I far prefer a very simple, thin-crust pizza dough that my friend Jo gave me, which takes all of about 15 minutes to whip up in the food processor.
The second variation I tried was a variation in cooking method only. Instead of using the BBA hearth baking method in the oven, I tried baking the loaves in our Big Green Egg grill. This was the first time I’d tried baking on the Egg and I decided to try l’Ancienne this way because I knew the bread so well and would be able to compare it well to what I was used to.
In a word, it was spectacular. The wood fired baking gave the bread a slightly smoky flavor, a crackly crust, and a huge spring resulting in lovely, large, uneven holes in the crumb. It was just the way you’d want a wood-fired baguette to taste. And we made it ourselves, on the back porch.
I won’t go through the step-by-step recipe here (you can see the pizza pictures here and the baguette-on-Egg pictures here.). Instead, I encourage you to buy the book, or borrow it from your local library or your bread-crazed friend, and try it. It’s not the easiest recipe. It asks you to deal with a very wet dough, and trust yourself not to overhandle it, but even if your first loaves come out lopsided and oddly shaped, I guarantee the flavor and the crust will amaze you. And maybe it will lead you to making bread every week, even if it’s the same loaf every time.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge is a group of home bakers, scattered across the planet, focused on one goal: completing every recipe in Peter Reinhart’s book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, in order, and writing about our experience. Want to join us? Buy or borrow a copy of the book, open a big bag of flour, and plunge in!