Monday, June 8, 2015

Bread of the Poilu, Part II

And now in this post we will resurrect pain ordinaire, and pain biscuité, the bread that fed the French soldier, or poilu, in two world wars.

The following photos are taken from a newsreel released in June 1940, showing the production of pain ordinaire/pain biscuité in the French Army.

Mixing the dough.
Scaling (weighing) the dough on the balance scale at the bottom of the picture.
The dough is then tossed on the work table where it is quickly shaped...
then placed into patons and left to rise.
After rising, the patons are moved to the ovens.

A view of the oven area of the bakery.
Note the wooden bin in the foreground for the completed bread
 and the large stacks of firewood between the oven loading areas.
A three-man team works to load the oven.
The soldier on the right (mostly off-screen) dusts the oven peel with flour and then tosses the shaped dough onto the oven peel.
The soldier in the middle, nearest the oven, has just finished making the slashes with a blade held in his right hand, and is stamping the loaf in the middle (presumably with the date/time) with a stamp held in his left hand.
The soldier on the left is holding a long-handled oven peel, which is then used to load the oven.
The entire process illustrated above takes only about 3-4 seconds.
A close-up view of the oven area.
Stacks of firewood are to the right, and more wooden bins for bread are next to the ovens.

A view from inside the oven.
French manuals of the pre- and early-WWI era go into great detail on the formulas for making pain ordinaire  and pain biscuité. There were three categories of flour: tendre (soft), mitadine (intermediate) and dure (hard), with corresponding formulas scaled to the number of rations.

I use bread flour, which has a higher gluten content. If you are using all-purpose flour, it will not give the same results. When testing the recipe I first tried the formula for hard flour, but this came out much too "wet". Eventually I found that the formula for soft flour ("tendre") gave the correct consistency in the dough and crumb in the completed bread.

As mentioned previously, the preferred form of leavening was a levain, produced with leftover dough from the previous day's batch. If you wish to try this method, prepare a batch of dough, either by fermentation or with yeast. Insure that your levain has a 43% moisture content by weight (57% flour / 43% water, by weight).

There are four useful (some might claim highly specialized) items of equipment that I used in this recipe. While not absolutely necessary, they definitely enhance the quality (and authenticity) of the finished bread:
  1. banneton/paneton/paton - a basket lined with a cloth in which the scaled and shaped loaf is placed to rise  
  2. wooden oven peel - for placing the loaf of dough into the oven
  3. oven stone - placed in the oven prior to heating. It provides a flat surface and an efficient and stable surface for transferring heat. 
  4. metal peel - for turning and removing the finished loaf from the oven.
  The only item which can be a bit pricey is an authentic banneton. I bought a handled basket from a reduced-price store, removed the handle, and lined it with a piece of linen cloth, well dusted with flour. The other items can be obtained fairly inexpensively if one shops around online.

At some point in the future I hope to construct a wood-burning field oven for bread-baking, but that's probably a bit too extreme for most.

Finally we arrive at the recipe. The amounts are scaled for one loaf (2 daily rations) or either pain ordinaire or pain biscuité . Although they are scaled exactly (in grams), please feel free to round off slightly.

The levain for pain ordinaire and pain biscuité is the same proportion of flour to water.

Levain for pain ordinaire:                       Levain for pain biscuité:                    
366 g   flour                                              290 g   flour                              
210 g   water                                            166 g   water       
1 tbsp*  instant dry yeast                       1 tbsp* instant dry yeast         

* 15 ml.
Have all ingredients at approximately 70°F/21°C.
We will make the levain, which is also known as a pre-ferment.
To create the levain, mix together the flour, yeast, and water. Knead until the biga is of a smooth consistency, with no dry spots.

Place the levain in a lightly oiled bowl or container, cover, and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours.

This is the levain after placing in a covered bowl

And after rising for approximately 1 hour 30 minutes.
The levain turned out onto the work surface
As the levain is a bit drier than the dough mixture, it will be easier to incorporate if cut into smaller pieces

Dough for pain ordinaire:               Dough for pain biscuité: 
710 g   flour                                     820 g flour               
476 g   water                                   526 g water                
10 g       salt                                       10 g salt               

Mix the flour and salt together. Add the water and levain, and mix until smooth. The levain should be well incorporated, and there should be no dry spots on the dough.

Place the dough in a container and let rest until double in size, about 90 minutes.

Shape the dough into a flattened ball and place onto a board or in a banneton that has been lined with a heavily floured cloth.
Leave uncovered and let rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C.

Slashes in the pain biscuité dough.

Place the dough on a floured wooden oven peel or on a baking sheet that has been greased or lined with parchment paper.
Before placing pain biscuité in the ovenslash the top of the loaf with four cuts at right angles to form a square. This was done with pain biscuité to aid venting of moisture after baking.

After loading the oven, reduce the heat to 325°F/165°C

Pain ordinaire: bake for 60 minutes at 325°F/165°C.
Pain biscuitébake for 70 minutes at 325°F/165°C.

When finished, the loaf should have a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom.
Bread was normally aged for a minimum of 18 hours, but normally for 24 hours, before being issued.

Pain ordinaire

Finished pain biscuité (left) and pain ordinaire (right).
Note the flatter shape of the pain biscuité.
Pain ordinaire, cut to reveal texture of the crumb.
It has been allowed to rest for 18 hours before cutting.