Pain Au Levain

We’re temporarily in London… and I’m missing real bread! Sorry, but having got used to wonderful bread from great French boulangeries I just can’t face British supermarket bread.

I do have a bread machine here, so that certainly helps. But it’s not quite the same. I like using it to make dough for rolls, which are great, but different.

A lot of bread in France is made not with yeast but with levain, or in English leaven. There are various types of levain, but something very simple to use is a piece of dough from the previous baking which has been allowed to develop and ferment slightly.

By the way, when you read English translations of the Bible and you come across the word yeast, it’s wrong. What it should say is leaven. If you think about it, for example the parable of the leaven, it makes sense when you think about leaven, but not when you use the word yeast. Anyway….

So I decided to revive and try and improve a recipe I’d worked out a while ago for pain au levain, or old dough bread. Note that leaven (in the sense I’m using it) is not sourdough starter, although it’s related. Also I should say that many keen bakers will complain that my recipe is not truly pain au levain. Fair enough, but I was deliberately trying to come up with something that was simple to make. I make no claims to be an expert baker either!

The photo at the top is the end result. Here we go with the ingredients:

250g piece of dough saved from a previous mix
460g bread flour*
400ml tap water
1.5 tsp salt

*What flour? You could just use strong white flour. You could use a little bit (maybe 50g) of rye flour (very French). I like to use mainly white flour and about 100g of malted flour (Granary, or Dove’s Malthouse, etc). With wholemeal flour you may need more water.

Now for the method:

1. When saving the old dough, put it into a bowl (large enough to allow for doubling in size) and clingfilm the bowl. Leave it in the kitchen at room temperature overnight, for up to 24 hours. When ready it should have visibly risen and smell slightly fermented.

2. Put the flour, salt and water into a bowl. Mix with a hard spatula until all the water is mixed in. Cover bowl with clingfilm and let the mix rest for 1 hour to autolyse (which means that enzymes in the flour begin to break down the starch and protein in the flour, developing the gluten, resulting in an eventual dough which is easier to work and gives better results with less kneading).

3. Add the old dough to the mix in pieces and mix with the hard spatula as much as possible. Note that the amount of water is deliberately on the high side, since a wetter dough seems to make better bread.

4. Turn the mix onto a floured board and knead for 15 minutes. Add flour as needed to keep the dough workable – it will be very sticky, especially at the beginning, but just persevere. The aim of the recipe is to keep the dough as wet as possible: adding a bit more water than really needed at the start then adding flour at this stage to make it kneadable. At the end, it should ideally be possible to stretch the dough into a nearly see-through”window” (don’t worry if you can’t get it to this stage).

5. Form the dough into a boule shape and put it into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and let it prove for 3 hours at room temperature until it is at least doubled in size. Yep, 3 hours. More might be even better! The idea is that long proving develops flavour and texture, and also makes the bread easier to digest, so it’s better for you.

6. Knock the dough back and then remove a 250g piece for the next loaf (see stage 1: this can be put in the fridge if not being used the next day).

7. Shape the dough (into a boule or baton). There are techniques for this, search online for dough shaping for more details. Place the loaf onto a strong baking tray covered with baking parchment. Cover lightly with oiled clingfilm and prove for 3 hours at room temperature.

8. Heat the oven to 250 degrees C (“normal” heating, not fan); this will likely take up to 20 minutes. Slash the top of the loaf deeply a few times with a very sharp knife. Throw half a cup of cold water into the bottom of the oven to create some steam (which helps develop a good crust), then put the loaf in.

9. After 5 minutes turn the oven down to 220 degrees C and bake for 20 to 25 minutes more or until well browned and hollow when tapped.

Here’s what mine looked like:

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