Thursday, April 24, 2014

Prairie Loaf (adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman's Pain au levain)

Believe it or not, I recently flew from Chicago to Seattle with a pocketful of starter and nothing happened! Granted, the starter was firm to start with (60% hydration) and it had been fed within an inch of its life just before I left for the airport, so it was sluggish and sated. Still, it sat tucked snugly against me in my vest pocket for two flights and what seemed like the longest layover ever (I was flying on a free ticket, so I can't really complain) and I was worried that it might get so warm it would decide to peek out and/or maybe let its presence known with a cheerful bang. I guess I still have painful memories of the long-ago day my apple levain exploded and had to be scraped off the ceiling and the windows of our enclosed porch. Now that must have been one nasty blow-up. Not that anybody was home to witness it but when we came back, we found the lid of the dough bucket on the floor near the door... Anyway, as I said, nothing happened this time. First thing I did upon getting home was unwrap the starter. Far from being active, it appeared stunned. I fed it and when I woke up the next morning, it had inflated to three times its original size. One day later, it looked like it never fled the coop.
It smelled so wonderfully lactic I couldn't bear to throw away the surplus. So I decided to bake with it.
I picked a very simple formula, Jeffrey Hamelman's Pain au levain (Sourdough bread) from the second edition of his book Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes and adapted it a bit. I don't usually bake or eat mostly white breads but I just had to taste my Chicago levain and by using no other flour than all-purpose (except for a smidgen of rye), I was hoping we would be able to savor it in all its glory. I am glad to say it worked (thank you, Jeffrey!). The bread has zero acidity and a delicate lactic aroma. It smells like the first breeze of spring over the prairie. Not that I ever saw the prairie or what's left of it but I am blessed -or cursed, depending on the occasion- with a vivid sensory imagination and the starter is from the Midwest after all. Since the prairie is what I saw with my mind's eyes when I inhaled the breath of the proofed dough, I couldn't resist stenciling one of the loaves with flowers and calling it the Prairie Loaf. And when that loaf came out of the oven in full bloom, I knew I had to bring it to my favorite plant whisperer, the friend who helps make our CSA such a happy place (thank you, Rita!). I shaped the other loaf as a bâtard in memory of the long rustic loaves my eighty-year old grandfather used to go get from the nearest village on his Solex motorized bicycle.
Baking on an impulse is fun but it has its drawbacks, one of which being that you have to adapt to what you have on hand. After feeding the starter, all I had left was about 160 g of mature levain. You know me, I am hopeless at math. With a calculator, I could have figured out the relative weights of the other ingredients but it would have taken a while and I knew I didn't have to because I could count on BreadStorm (the software I am using for my bread formulas) to do it for me.
Using the drop-down scaling menu, I entered the amount of flour in the levain (which I calculated by dividing 160 g by 175 then multiplying by 100) and in a flash, the weights of the other ingredients were recalculated and I was ready to mix. Sweet! Thank you, Jacqueline and Dado Colussi for having thought up this amazing software, and, Dado, a thousand thanks for this beautiful starter! And as you probably guessed, dear readers, there is a Meet the Bakers Dado and Jacqueline Colussi in this blog's near future. Thank you for your patience!
Method (this bread is made over two days and yields two smallish loaves)

  1. Build the levain the night before
  2. On the day of the bake, mix levain, water and flours until incorporated and all the flour is hydrated (I mixed by hand)
  3. Let this shaggy dough stand, covered, for 30 to 60 minutes
  4. Add the salt and mix until the dough is cohesive and supple, adding water if necessary to obtain a medium consistency
  5. Transfer to oiled container and cover
  6. Do two folds at 50-minute intervals
  7. Let ferment for another hour and place in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours (it might become acidic if you wait any longer)
  8. Pull the dough out when ready to shape and proof
  9. Divide in two and shape as desired
  10. Proof until ready (the length of the proofing depends largely on the room temperature. A loaf is ready to go in the oven when a small indentation lingers when you palpate it gently with one finger)
  11. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes in pre-heated 450°F/232°C oven, applying steam at the beginning
  12. Cool on a wire rack
  13. Enjoy!


  1. Wonderful! I must say I got a shiver up and down my spine. Serendipity strikes again. A member of my department left a small booklet for me over my desk - as I came here from the lab, I found it: A Pocket Guide to Kansas Flint Hills Wildflowers and Grasses... that is prairie by definition, and now I see your bread....

    full circle.

    full beauty.

    great bread

    Great post!

    1. Wow, serendipity indeed! I love it. There is something so mysterious about the way it works it gives me the shivers too. In the same vein, I have a friend in France I have known since nursery school and with whom telepathy has never failed over the thirty-plus year I have been living in this country... I find it quite extraordinary in fact. Glad you liked the post (and the loaf!). Thanks, Sally!

  2. Those loaves look amazing and as I am just revving up a little starter to send in the post on Monday to a friend, I will go with 60% hydration and see if that travels well, I have tried various permutations over the years, but that sounds good! And I will suggest she tries your loaf too, love the flowers and the colours - and falling in love with BreadStorm too :)

    1. Hi Joanna, can't wait to hear that the traveling starter has arrived safely. How long will it take for it to reach your friend? I once received in the mail a little pouch of starter that had traveled overnight and it was just fine... Glad you like the loaf and BreadStorm. I love it that the program does all the nitty-gritty work for me and I can concentrate on playing with ingredients and proportions....

  3. Hi MC,
    Love the stenciling on the boule. Lovely shaped loaf too. I usually don't have extra leaven so when I do, like you, I have a really hard time tossing it into the trash….A nice little 'simple' loaf like this is the perfect solution. Great idea!

    Glad to read that your leaven did not explode in your pocket or that you didn't get interrogated for carrying a 'strange' substance onto an airplane. I would hate to read one of your enties written from a prison cell *^)

    Take Care,

    1. Hi Janet, you are so funny! We just watched the entire first season of Orange is the New Black and from what I saw, it takes a strong woman to appropriate a kitchen in prison. Not that you mention it, I don't know that I have what it takes. But I wasn't really worried, the starter was very firm. I don't know that I would have carried liquid levain through security...

  4. Carissima MC bentornata,
    soltanto tu potevi portarti il lievito naturale in aereo, se questa non è incondizionata passione per la panificazione cos'altro è...., e poi vogliamo parlare di quello straordinario stencil floreale applicato alla tua pagnottella? E' delizioso come soltanto puoi essere, brava!
    Con affetto dalla Toscana, Anna Giordani

    1. Thank you so much, Anna! You are always so kind...

  5. What a beautiful decorated bread!
    I hate trashing perfectly fine leaven, too, so I usually try to keep the amounts low. I'm a great fan of BreadStorm, too, and Jacqueline answers promptly, if you have a question. And it's so convenient to import formulas from other blogs (I have all yours), instead of copying and pasting them.

    1. Thank you, Karin. I have imported your formulas too! Isn't it fantastic to be able to share "live" recipes, so to speak? I am so grateful to Dado and Jacqueline for creating this software and continuously improving it.

  6. Tried to import the formula using current beta version, and it only would open a program called PDF reader I have on my iPad, not breadstorm., dos anyone else have this problem?

    1. Brad, thank you for bringing the problem to my attention. I don't know what caused it but anyway I replaced the screenshots and link to bun file by an interactive formula. I hope you have no trouble this time. Please keep me posted!



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