Pain à l’Ancienne

Please welcome the very first guest post on my blog, written by none other than my much loved and much blogged about sister Erica. Feel free to refer to her as ‘blondie pants,’ ‘spankeroo,’ or ‘schmantypants.’ I’m so excited to have her share this recipe. It makes the best bread I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve been bugging her to write about it ever since June 8th, the day I started this blog in the first place. And though I’ve destroyed our relationship by my consummate nagging, at least I squeezed this out of her before she decided never to talk to me again.

Just kidding! She gave it over to my blog willingly–that’s how a well-trained younger sister behaves. Without further ado, I hand things over to this extremely kitchen-competent wonderwoman.

Pain à l’Ancienne means “Old style bread.” It’s also known as: Bread So Good You Will Never Go Back To The Bread Machine.

I discovered this bread while working at the IU Opera and Ballet Theatre’s costume shop as a seamstress with just about the most wonderful ladies ever. It showed up at most of our (frequent) potlucks, and we all looked forward to its appearance with much eagerness and salivation.  When I moved on to grad school and no longer had time to say my own name, much less work at the shop, I finally wheedled the recipe out of the woman who made it, to my great delight. After whipping up lots and lots of batches and making some slight modifications to the recipe, I give you The Best Bread You Can Easily Make At Home Which Will Win You Many Friends And Followers–And Possibly A Nobel Prize.

The bread is incredibly simple to make; all it requires is a tiny bit of forethought, since you will start it the day before you wish to bake it. I tried par-baking it once, then freezing it, so that I could pop it into the oven without delay whenever the need arose, but I like it fresh much, much better. To par-bake it (if you choose to follow that dark and crunchy path), simply bake it for about half the time you usually would, let it cool, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or a ziploc, and freeze it.  Then all you have to do is let it thaw for a bit before resuming the baking process whenever you are in need of really awesome bread at the drop of a hat. I found that the crust was much thicker and less delicious than when made fresh, but it’s till darn good.

So, what does it take to make this bread, you ask? Not much, sez I.


6 c. (i.e. 27 oz.) unbleached bread flour (MUST be bread flour- I like to use Gold Medal’s Better for Bread, but any flour specifically meant for bread will work)

1 ¾ tsp yeast (about one package, the dry active kind, not the instant or bread machine kind)

1 TBS  vital wheat gluten

2 ¼ tsp salt

2 ½ to 3 c ICE COLD water

Let’s begin!

First, measure all your dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. I like to give ‘em a nice whisk about to blend them well before adding the water. This way we don’t end up with unfortunate salty lumps. However, the great thing about this bread is that you don’t have to be über precise. Pile it all in. Mix it around. Call it a day. Then add the water. It does need to be ice cold- I always end up putting cold tap water in a bowl with a bunch of ice cubes and measure out the quantity I need, but I suppose you can use cold water from your fridge, too.  That would be way easier. Once it’s been added, stir it with a spoon until it’s fairly uniform. The dough will be very sticky, so I tend to add a little less than the maximum 3 cup amount, and if it’s too dry, add a little more. Anyway, this is floppy, sticky dough that will get your hands all gummy. Last time I made this bread a week or two ago, I used my Kitchen Aid mixer with the paddle attachment to mix it and the dough hook to knead it. It worked really well, but I’ve been making this bread without fancy equipment for several years and it doesn’t make a difference what you use. The Kitchen Aid just makes your hands less gross.

So.  Once mixed, put a generous quantity of your bread flour on the counter top and plop the squishy dough onto it. Then, begin to knead. You’ll probably find yourself using quite a bit more flour so that 90% of it doesn’t end up on your hands, but try to keep the excess flour to a minimum. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, and still quite sticky (or after 6-8 minutes of hand-kneading), lightly grease another clean mixing bowl and put the dough into it. Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and pop it all into the fridge. Leave it there overnight. The longest I’ve left it in the fridge is about a day and a half, but if you leave it in a little longer it can only increase the goodness. I wouldn’t abandon it for more than two days, though.

When you take it out of the fridge, you’ll notice that big, beautiful bubbles have formed in the dough. Yummmmmm. Don’t do anything to it yet, just set it in a warm place and let it rise. Since the dough is cold, it will take quite a bit longer than your average rising time since it first has to warm up. But that’s ok because it’s totally worth it. Mine usually rises for a good 3 hours. Last time I turned my oven on the lowest setting, put the bowl in, plastic wrap and all, and turned the oven off after 2 or 3 minutes. This works well because the small space retains the heat nicely.

Once your dough has doubled in size and is smelling all yeasty and glorious, take it out of the oven (if that’s where you were letting it rise). Don’t punch it down!  Now, fill a cast iron or sturdy metal baking pan with water, and put it in your oven. We’ll put the bread on the lower rack, so it’s ok to put the rack with the water on it fairly high in the oven. We want the steam from the evaporating water, as this will make the crust crunchy and beautiful. Preheat to about 475 Fahrenheit, and while the oven preheats, we’ll prep the loaves.

Personally, I like generously sized wider loaves rather than baguettes with this bread.  You can do whatever you like, though. If doing baguettes, you can get about 5 shorter loaves from this recipe; otherwise, divide the dough into three lumps. It will be quite squishy and floppy, and won’t hold its shape too well. What we REALLY DON’T want is to squeeze or squash the dough too much. We want to keep those big air bubbles that have formed overnight, so be gentle with it. If you have a holey pizza pan, this is the time to use it. Otherwise a cookie sheet with some cornmeal sprinkled on it will do just fine. I bet a pizza stone would be great too, so use yours if you have one- just put the pizza stone in the oven with a light dusting of cornmeal when you put the water in, and slip the loaves onto it when the oven is ready. Otherwise, gently place the loaves onto your cornmealed pan and pop it in the oven.

A word about the baking: these loaves will rise a lot, and expand slightly sideways too. I always have to bake them in several rounds–they don’t usually fit on a single pan. As the loaves bake (judge the doneness by color), usually 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the loaf, you’ll need to use a water spritzer to spray the loaves 4-5 times throughout the baking time. You can find one in the laundry aisle of most stores, near the ironing stuff. The steam from the pan is great, but we need a little extra. Plus, it’s fun. Don’t be afraid to aim directly at the bread. A word of caution: it is very hot, so be careful as the steam might cloud up on you when you spray. The loaves will become a lovely deep golden or light brown color. Let them cool slightly if you can- a true test of your self-control- and then….devour!

That’s about it. It sounds way more complicated from my instructions than it really is, but once you try it out you’ll see not only how easy it is to make, but how incredibly delicious the bread is. I mean, the tastiness-to-difficulty ratio is totally in your favor. Oh my, just you wait! The smell is divine, and the bread has the perfect slight crunch to the crust and beautiful texture to the inside . . . mmmm . . . Plus, I find bread making to be a wonderful, peaceful thing that is utterly satisfying, especially when shared. You can’t beat the homey and intoxicating smell of homemade bread that fills you house (and your soul!).

So make it! Tomorrow! (start it tonight!!) You won’t regret it. I promise.

And I won’t even TELL you how awesome it is with little pat of butter melting on it, still hot from the oven……

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20 Responses to Pain à l’Ancienne

  1. Sherri says:

    Yum – just YUM!!! I wish I was adventurous enough to try bread (to make it, that is). Maybe I will…. just this once….

  2. Sarah says:

    oh wow, this looks delicious. and since you said the magic words (IU) i have to make it since i’m in grad school there. sooooo it’ll be extra special. :)

  3. Steph Berg says:

    This will be one of my next projects…and wait! Who is the fabulous hand model that you hired to cut the bread? Oh wait, thats me…heh

  4. Carrie says:

    oooooooo! Something to bake in my new, fresh-outa-the-maintenance-storage-unit oven! I’m definitely going to try my hand at this very soon… Thanks for sharing the food love, Erica. :)

  5. Twinky Satterthwaite says:

    How would you compare this to Chapata bread for texture and hole-i-ness? Also, what is the difference between dry active yeast and instant yeast? I think the granular stuff I always kept in the freezer is the dry active (like the packages of Fleischmans?), right? SOMEDAY I will make this and other tasty delicious homemade breads again. I suppose I will need to get out my camera and do a guest posting of the quick wheat rolls recipe…. someday!

    • Jenna says:

      I’ll let Erica answer your baking question . . . but I had to put in my 2 cents and say that you should definitely get out your camera and send me a post covering those wheat rolls. They are favorites with everyone who eats them. Plus, since I don’t tend towards the ‘baking’ spectrum of the culinary arts, I can simply enlist you, Heidi, and Erica to take care of that entire area for me! =)

  6. Erica says:

    The active dry stuff is the stuff we’ve always kept in the freezer. I’ve actually never cooked with the instant stuff, so I’m not sure what kind of recipes it’s in. The crust on this bread is very similar to chapata, and the holey-ness is slightly less large, although I think that increasing the kneading time a bit as well as the cold-rising time may very well increase it. Actually, I bet if you punch it down, knead it again while it’s still cold, then continue refrigeration for another 6-12 hours, you would probably achieve larger more resistant bubbles. But that’s just my theory.

    Side note: this bread is way less involved than it seems! Don’t let it scare you and make it, stat!

  7. Brenda says:

    Spankeroo, this looks like the most amazing, delicious bread! (Sorry, but your sister said it was okay to call you that, yell at her). It really is gorgeous and I’m dying over the pic with the melting butter. Yum!

    • Jenna says:

      Brenda, your comment made me laugh so much! I’m literally sitting here shaking in my seat. =) Thanks for taking me up on it and actually calling my sister ‘spankeroo’–it just made my day.

  8. aimeetalks says:

    I love baking bread from scratch. I will definitely try this recipe! Great post

  9. Kay Heritage says:

    Dear Wonder Woman, This looks fantastic! And I like you already because you’re Jenna’s sister.

  10. Doris says:

    Thanks for sharing your bread receipe. Superb pictures!

    I looked at the pictures, but read just a bit of text.
    I can’t spend that much time reading your nice but long story.
    I work in communication and I work hard on shortening and simplifing text.
    I add MANY SUBTITLES to direct the reader ant to keep him reading. LOTS OF IMAGES and BOLD TEXT.

    When I buy a receipe book, I choose the simplest one because cooking is demanding these busy days and it has to be TEMPTING showing me the results and I must be able to have a quick look at ingredients to tell me if I want to try this.
    I hope you read this in a friendly mood.
    I made bread with Mariette :
    Excuse my English, I’m french from Québec.

    • Jenna says:

      Thank you Doris! I appreciate the feedback. I understand not everyone wants to read the stories . . . that’s why there’s a printable version at the end you can skip to. I agree there are a lot of instructions, but bread-making is tricky for beginners, so we thought it would be helpful to give detailed instructions (when not to punch the dough down, how much to knead, etc.).
      I’m glad you liked the pictures!
      Hope you have a wonderful day–I’ll have to check out that youtube video. Je t’écrirais en francais si je ne l’avais tout oublié . . . =)

      • Erica says:

        Ha ha… yes, i agree with both of you that the post is a little long. But, after all, stories are what make recipes richer and weave them in as a part of our lives. Stories take time, but isn’t that the beauty of it?
        Merci de ta réponse, Doris, même si tu n’aimes pas les histoires longues avec les recettes. ;) Dis-nous si tu aimes ce pain!

  11. Shaina says:

    For a more open crumb and those large holes like ciabatta, you need to preserve the bubbles that form during the long proofing in the refrigerator. A really great way to do this is by folding the dough instead of kneading it. After mixing the dough let it rest about 10 or 15 minutes. Then come back, pour it onto the counter–it will probably be quite wet–and gently fold it into thirds as best as you can. Now fold it in thirds the other way. Press it out and repeat a couple time. Let it rest covered on the counter for 1/2 hour and repeat the folding process. Do this four times over two hours and place in a bowl in the fridge overnight. The folding process develops the gluten while preserving air bubbles and using less flour, which will all lend towards a more open crumb.
    Shape it gently the next day and never, ever punch it down. This process will change the texture and possibly the shape of the final product but it shouldn’t change the flavor.

  12. Veronica says:

    What a great guest post from your sister and she posted my favorite thing in the world–a recipe! I can’t believe how simple the ingredients list is. When she said how incredible this bread is, I expected so see something unusual in the ingredients. To my surprise, the only thing unusual is how few there are! So the amazing flavor and texture comes from the long rising time–the part that I’m always trying to rush. Oh well, I will force myself to be patient to I can experience the delicious yeastiness to its full potential. Thanks to you both!

  13. Wendy says:

    I really think it would be appropriate for us to test this bread and let you know just how delicious it is. Erica?

  14. Holly says:

    I demand that Erica start a blog of her own STAT!! That bread looks amazing, but what the heck is vital wheat gluten and where would I get it?

    • Jenna says:

      I demand it too! Let’s go Erica! (I’ve been working on her for months–months, I tell you!).
      I’m copying her response about where to find the vital wheat gluten from facebook:

      “In the baking aisle near things like flax. Some grocery stores have it in the natural foods area, too. It’s not essential to the bread, but does improve it.”

      In terms of what it actually is . . . well, I have no idea.

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