Poilane Miche: Tackling A Legend


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As usual, I had bread on my mind the moment I returned to New York from my latest trip to Singapore.

After weeks away from my oven, I always touch down just itching to bake something. And this time, a quick check with my fellow Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge bakers revealed that they were mired in a difficult spot in the bread lineup.

“We are in Sourdough right now,” said Daniel in Berlin (a.k.a. @MisterRios of the Ährelich Gesagt blog). “Everyone is tRYEing their best.”

Ahh, bread humor. Gotta love it.

After the laughter subsided, however, I started to get worried. Sourdough in the hands of lesser bakers can be a massive pain in the tush. 

I should know.

Just last month, bolstered by a successful pane Siciliano and wondering what to do with a bowl of sourdough starter, I brazenly decided to take on a legend: Poilane miche — the Holy Grail of breads.

Now, Poilane and I, we go back a few years.

I’ve never visited the vaunted boulangerie, whose breads used to be regularly flown to New York by Concorde so it could be sold relatively fresh in Manhattan. But I have enjoyed it hot and fresh in Paris both in its pure form and topped with ham, melted gruyere and an egg in a deliciously sour Croque Madame.

So I was immediately tempted when I saw it on the list in Peter Reinhart’s bread book. Sure, I hadn’t made even basic sourdough bread before, making this attempt a little insane.

But a girl can dream — why crawl when you can fly, right?

From the beginning, however, this bread was my nemesis.

On the first day, I mixed together some starter, whole wheat flour and water to form a ball. The dough was incredibly dry at this point and a little crumbly. Nonetheless, I decided to power through.

The next day, problem number two emerged. After you add seven cups of flour, salt and water, this dough becomes massive — so massive that you can’t use a
standmixer to knead it.

I hadn’t thought this would be an issue until I
realized how stiff this dough was. After several minutes of kneading, I
began to intimately understand what “working your fingers to the bone”
might mean.

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After more fermenting, I formed it into a boule and let it ferment even more.

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It started to look OK — a little professional, even, after scoring it with a hash sign to look like the picture on the cover of the book.

The big cracks appearing were worrisome, however. The dough also felt very dry and incredibly heavy. But we’d come too far to turn back by this point. So after prepping the oven for hearth baking, in it went.

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How did it look at the end? Well, like a big rock, essentially. And just about as heavy as one, too.

In short, nothing like the Poilane miches I’d seen in my life.

After sawing through the rock that was my miche, we found a dense, dry bread that bordered on inedible.

My rose-tinted visions of home-made Croque Madame with my very own Poilane-style miche instantly disappeared.

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What went wrong? I’m not entirely sure.

But just as I wouldn’t have bought a sewing kit and expected to create a Yves Saint Laurent masterpiece in a day, I probably shouldn’t have expected to nail a Poilane miche on the first try.

This is not to say I’m giving up on sourdough breads, however.

But first things first — I’ll have to learn how to crawl.

~~~

Not all Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge bakers were such massive failures at Poilane miche. Check some out here:

Jude‘s at Apple Pie, Patis & Pate

Oggi‘s at I Can Do That!

Phyl‘s at Of Cabbages & King Cakes

TXFarmer‘s at The Fresh Loaf

Sally‘s at Bewitching Kitchen

You can also check out more Poilane-style miches at Yeastspotting.

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15 thoughts on “Poilane Miche: Tackling A Legend

  1. Every time I read a post about that book, I wish I had read the book! My new year’s resolution is to finally get through my to-read stack. I don’t know what might have gone wrong, but I’m sure you’ll have better luck next time!

  2. Oh, it is sooo disappointing when this kind of stuff happens…
    However, I have to say Poilane is probably THE trickiest bread of all – the amount of dough needed, very tough to knead it properly. I advise you to try the “folding” method instead, there are lots of great descriptions on how to do it – if you follow TX’s Farmer link, in that site you can get great instructions for folding dough.
    Don’t give up, practice makes perfect!

  3. Lisa…this one is a definite must-read! It’s so informative…
    Sally, thanks for your kind words. I’ll try folding next time. I wonder if the problem is with my starter. It doesn’t look as bubbly or healthy as the starters I’ve seen on other blogs. Maybe I just need to start that from scratch, as much as I’m dreading that five-day process. Sigh.

  4. The starter is a possibility indeed – when I want to make a sourdough bread, I make sure to refresh the starter three times – usually the best breads happen when you “catch” the starter at the maximum level of fermentation, right before it collapses. But it will work well a little earlier or later.
    If your starter, even after being refreshed three days in a row seems “weak”, you will be better off starting over (I know, I know, it IS a little painful…)
    Good luck, and feel free to drop me an email if you need help

  5. Thanks, Sally! I definitely need to refresh my starter before trying anything else with it. It’s been sitting in my refrigerator, untouched, for six weeks. I’ve been wondering if it’s remotely alive.
    Another BBA baker sent me this link to a King Arthur Flour strategy for reviving starters before baking: http://www.waymorehomemade.com/2009/04/wfmw-sourdough-success.html
    Her bread was just beautiful so I may try this. If it doesn’t work, I guess I’ll have to start the barm etc. from scratch. Will definitely email you if I need help. (Which is very likely!)

  6. Hej,
    Looking at the cracked surface of the final dough, I’m going to guess that it wasn’t kneaded enough. I know 4 pounds of dough can be a lot, and I second what Sally said, Stretch and fold does wonders. I have actually baked a bunch of miches with 60-66% hydration with success. It’s been my everyday bread, so it never even occurred to me to blog about it.
    I haven’t actually made the recipe from the book, but I will next weekend.
    I have complete faith in you that you will succeed with this bread. Maybe try the Basic Sourdough to get a feel for the bread, and come back to this one. Trust me, you can bake this one. Anyone can.

  7. Hey Daniel…thanks for the tip. I did get so tired kneading that I probably didn’t knead it enough. (My fingers hurt!) I think I’m going to take a break from sourdough and attempt something that doesn’t need a starter — my bread-baking ego has taken a beating!
    I promise I’ll come back to this though. I do want to nail basic sourdough.
    Can’t wait to see how your Poilane miche turns out…

  8. Sorry to hear you struggled with this one. I agree with Daniel that your loaf was likely under-kneaded.
    If your starter was healthy when you stuck it in the fridge, it’s probably fine. It’s really hard to kill a starter. Take it out of the fridge and feed it a 1:1:1 ratio every 12 hours for a few days. I would be willing to bet it will perk right up.
    You should definitely try this one again. It’s worth the effort!

  9. Yes so this is exactly why I am scared of sourdough breads! Like you, I need to just jump in and get over my fears. Good luck with your future attempts. I know you’ll get it right eventually.

  10. Thanks, Joanne…I hope you’re right!
    And Phyl, starters continue to mystify me. (1:1:1?!) I need to read more on what it means to feed a starter as I’m convinced I’m doing it wrong! Hoping to try basic sourdough this week. Will report back!

    • For sourdough, ask aruond and see if any of your friends have a starter living in their fridge or cupboard. This is a mix of flour, water, natural yeast and bacteria that makes sourdough turn sour and rise.You use some of it to make dough, and feed some more flour and water to the remainder and it re-grows. It’s like having a very boring pet you can eat.Some people call it Amish Friendship Bread instead of sourdough. You can also buy a kit to make the starter on the internet.Once you have a nice living starter, you can check the internet for recipes.The basic recipe for sourdough is to use a regular bread recipe but substitute 1 cup starter for 1/2 cup each of the flour and water, and leave out the yeast. Quadruple the rising time, and make sure it has a nice warm place to rise. Mine rises on top of my stereo amplifier.

  11. So far I’ve only made 3 breads out of this book, but I have noticed that I’ve had to add more water than called for in each recipe. Also, for the kneading, knead for about 2-3 minutes by hand, then let rest for about 15-20 minutes, then go back and knead for about another 3-5 minutes: much easier to get full amount of kneading in if let rest. This technique is touched on somewhere in the book (read whole book before starting, but not sure which bread it is) and it really works. This is also the basis for that whole no-knead bread phenomenon!

  12. Thanks for the tip, Tonia…yes, it probably would help if I had read his pages and pages of instructions on the basics of bread baking before tackling the Poilane miche!

  13. Hey Cheryl,
    reading your book made me drool well not really but I loved reading about all your food adventures. I want to travel all around the world and try all the different kinds of food. Do you know if you can find your family’s duck stew in the US? I so WANT to try that stew, the one with the tofu and the hard boiled eggs. I would love to be able to make your dumplings the rice pyramid one. I can’t make it at home because my Mom is a vegetarian and well I don’t know where I can find Singoporean dishes in CA. I live Santa Barbara and I was wondering if you knew of any Singoporean dishes in the LA? Also check out my food blog. I would love to hear your opinions. http://travelsandfood.typepad.com/blog/2011/05/peace-love-and-pizza.html

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