I was browsing through some papers my Mom gave me in 2005 when she moved from the apartment she had shared with my Dad to her retirement home and found an old notebook in which she had kept a detailed account of household expenses for a whole (presumably lean) year (only months are indicated but several clues lead me to think it was the year of my birth).
Two food items appear on every single page day after day. Knowing mine was a French family, I am sure you already guessed that one of these two daily purchases was bread. The other one was milk.
In my family, milk was sometimes used for soups (my mom made a wickedly delicious rice and potato milk soup) or dessert (caramelized rice pudding comes to mind), “pain perdu” (French toast) or crêpes but mostly it went into the hot Ovomaltine (Ovaltine in this country) which she had us drink every morning. We never drank cold milk and I don’t remember us having cereals in the house until much much later and then only plain corn flakes which I didn’t particularly care for as they became soggy extremely fast. I didn’t like the taste of Ovomaltine either but my mom said we had to drink it because malt was good for children. Some blessed weeks she relented and bought Banania, a hot cocoa mix based on banana flour. We loved that!
My Mom never had to coax us into eating bread however. It was an essential part of every meal. We mostly had baguettes, but also bâtards when we were in the country at my grandparents’ house. Even at age 80, my grandfather rode his Solex (motorized bike) to the next village on the itinerant baker’s day off (that baker drove slowly through the village on most days, selling bread from his store on wheels).
I have no pictures of my grandfather riding his Solex with fat long loaves fastened to the rack behind the saddle but since he always wore a beret and had a big bushy mustache, I am pretty sure he must have looked like a poster Frenchman on the rides back home.
We only ate crusty white bread, except for festive occasions when fresh oysters were on the menu. Then we had “pain bis” (a darker and denser bread which contained rye), spread with thick country butter. I liked it. But then, even as a child, I seldom met a bread I didn’t like…
Coming back from France last week, one of the first things I did was to reactivate my levain (the one I had started with Gérard) and get ready for baking again. The levain (which I had dehydrated nearly three months ago and kept in the form of dry nuggets) literally sprang back to life. I was able to use it after only two feedings.
From my first batch, I made one bâtard, one funny-looking (but deliciously crunchy) S-shaped “tordu” (which I twisted but didn’t score prior to baking) and two round polka breads.
Polka bread is for crust lovers. Popular throughout France, it dates back to the first years of the 20th century according to Pains d’hier et d’aujourd’hui (literally “Breads of yesteryear of and of today”), Mouette Barboff’s excellent compendium of French breads which Marc Dantan has illustrated with stunning photographs.
Barboff goes on to say that polka bread is a levain-fermented wheat bread, usually made from white flour. What makes it different from other breads is its tic-tac-toe scoring. While it is often round, it can also be found in long shapes (thus offering an even higher percentage of crust). In Paris and surrounding areas, it is often sold as a 4 lb-galette shaped loaf.
I hardly ever make an all-white bread, so I chose to use rustic bâtard dough for this batch but bearing in mind that polka bread is often made with overproofed dough (which would not bake into a handsome loaf if shaped and scored as usual but gives the bread an ever more complex flavor), I retarded the dough, letting it bulk-ferment at room temperature for about one hour after mixing, folding it once then sticking it in the fridge for about 14 hours. I let it come back to room temperature before shaping, proofing and baking.
The loaves were shaped as boules. Once proofed and just prior to baking, I gently flattened the ones I wanted to make into polka breads with the palm of my hand (till they were about one-inch thick), floured them lightly and scored them as deep as possible (until I felt the countertop under the blade but without cutting through the dough) using the blunt side of the blade of a long kitchen knife. I could also have scored them with a lame and will do so next time for a more rustic look. They baked for about 35 minutes at 460 F/238 C. They were crunchy and delicious for breakfast and later on in the day with a runny French brie from Trader Joe’s…
Ingredients (for 1 “tordu”, 1 bâtard and 2 polka breads):
- 630 g organic unbleached all-purpose flour
- 270 g flour from freshly milled organic berries (60% wheat, 30% spelt, 10% rye)
- 770 g water
360 g ripe levain (65% hydration), cut into small pieces (like fluffy little pillows)
- 50 g wheat germ
- 18 g salt
Method: (this bread is made over two days but could be made in one day if desired by skipping the retarding of the dough in the fridge)
- Mix the flours with most of the water (at the required temperature to produce a dough at 76ºF/24ºC) in the bowl of the mixer and let rest 45 minutes to one hour (autolyse)
- Add the levain and mix on first speed
- Continue mixing for a few minutes and add the salt
- Adjust the hydration with the remaining water (different flours require different hydration rates), continue mixing for a minute or two and turn off the mixer. The dough should be soft to medium soft
- Transfer to a tightly closed oiled bin
- Ferment for one hour at room temp (69º F/21º C in my house), give the dough a four-way fold and put it in the fridge for 12 to 14 hours
- Bring the dough back to room temperature
- Transfer it to a flour-dusted work surface, divide in 4 pieces, pre-shape in 4 boules and let rest 30 minutes, covered
- Shape as desired (you might want to make 2 round and 2 long polka breads, in which case you would want 2 boules and 2 batards) and proof on a floured couche at room temperature, covered, for about one hour or until the dough springs back slowly when poked
- Meanwhile preheat the oven to 480ºF/249ºC (my oven doesn’t heat very well. A lower temperature setting might work just fine in your oven), taking care to put it in a baking stone and, underneath, a heavy metal pan for steaming (mine contains barbecue stones which we bought solely for steaming purposes)
- When the loaves are ready to be baked , dust with flour and score as desired. For the polka breads, whatever the shape, you must gently flatten the bread with the palm of you hand, then score deeply either with a lame (for a more rustic look) or with the blunt side of the blade of a long kitchen knife
- Pour a cup of cold water in the metal pan and bake for 35 minutes, turning the heat down after the first 10 minutes (in my case to 460ºF/238ºC) (since my oven has hot spots, I also move the loaves around after the first 15 minutes)
- Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Enjoy!