Pain Poilâne

This is an extract from what I call my Big Book which never got finished. Written in about 2006.

Lionel Poilâne’s 2k Mîche

Lionel Poilâne was France’s greatest post war baker. He set out to reverse the deterioration of French bread by developing a rustic, naturally leavened loaf made from the finest ingredients and baked in a wood burning oven. When his shop in the Rue du Cherche-Midi could not cope with demand, he built a bread factory at Bievres, south of Paris. However, this was hardly a factory in the Wonderloaf sense. It consists of 24 traditional wood burning ovens built in a circle, each with its own baker. In this way he was able to produce 7000 loaves per day sold, not only all over France, but across the world. Sadly he died in a helicopter crash on 01 November 2002 aged 57.

Various people have developed recipes imitating his large, round 2.2K mîches. The most famous of these is Patricia Wells who knew Poilâne well and learned his methods in his bakery. However, her recipe, which can be found in The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, contains commercial yeast. So whilst I would recommend the book (apart from its weight) which is brilliantly helpful when you are planning your trip to the capital, I suggest you give her recipe a miss.

A rather gothic shot of my imitation Poilâne

In 2003 I discovered another version on the forum by Alan Zelt, an American amateur baker which I print here as it appeared:

                          ” Memories of Poilane

Recipe By     : Alan Zelt
Serving Size  : 10   Preparation Time :0:00
Categories    : Bread                            French

  Amount  Measure       Ingredient — Preparation Method
——–  ————  ——————————–
                        Seed Culture
                        Day 1
   4 1/4  oz            dark rye flour(1 cup)
   6      oz            water (3/4 cup) — room temp
                        DAY 2
   4 1/2  oz            Lite rye flour(1 cup)
   4      oz            water(1/2 cup) — room temp
                        DAY 3
   4 1/2  oz            Lite rye flour(1 cup)
   4      oz            water(1/2 cup) — room temp
                        DAY 4
   4 1/2  oz            Lite rye flour(1 cup)
   4      oz            water — room temperature
  16      oz            bread flour(3 1/2 cups)
  16      oz            water (2cups) — at room temperature
   7      oz            seed culture
                        FIRM STARTER
   6      oz            barm (2/3 cup)
   4 1/2  oz            bread flour (1 cup)
   1      oz            water(1 to 2oz) — (1/8 to 1/4)
                        Final Dough
                        All of Firm Sourdough starter
  24      oz            water(3 cups) — room temp
   1      tbsp          fine sea salt
  27      oz            bread flour(6 cups)
   9      oz            spelt flour(2 cup)
   2 1/2  oz            dark rye flour(1/2cup)

Day 1 Mix the flour and water together in a bowl until they form a stif  ball of dough. Be sure that all the flour is hydrated. Press this piece of dough into a bowl. Cover the beaker with plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day 2 The dough should not have risen much, if at all, during this time. In a mixing bowl, combine the Day 2 ingredients with the Day 1 sponge, mixing with your hand or a spoon until all the ingredients are evenly distributed. The dough will be somewhat softer and wetter than the Day 1 sponge. Return this to the bowl, pressing it down. Cover with plastic wrap and ferment for 24 hours at room temperature.
Day 3 Check to see if there has been a rise in the sough. There will probably be some fermentation but not a lot, perhaps a 50 percent rise. Regardless, discard half of the starter, and mix the remaining half with the Day 3 ingredients, as on the previous day. It will be a little wetter.  Return it to the bowl and press down. It should press down to Cover and ferment for 24 hours.

Day 4 The sponge should have at least doubled in size; more is even better. If it is hasn’t doubled, let it to sit out for another 12 to 24 hours. Otherwise, repeat as on Day 3, discarding half of the starter and mixing the remaining half with the new ingredients, returning it to the beaker as before. Cover and ferment until it at least doubles in size. This may take 4 to 24 hours. It will not be able to sustain a large of a rise without falling. If it falls easily when you tap the bowl. That is the sign that your seed culture is ready to be turned into a barm.
Stir together the flour, water, and seed culture in a mixing bowl. (Make sure the seed culture is evenly distributed and all the flour is hydrated. It will make a wet, sticky sponge similar to a poolish. Transfer this sponge to a clean plastic, glass, or ceramic storage container twice as large as the harm. When transferring the harm into the container, repeatedly dip your hand, spatula, or bowl scraper in water to keep the barm from sticking to it. Cover the container with a lid or plastic  wrap and ferment at room temperature for approximately 6 hours, or until the barm is bubbly. The plastic wrap will swell like a balloon, as will a plastic lid. When this happens, open the lid or release the plastic to let the gas escape. Replace the cover and refrigerate overnight before using. The barm will be ready to use the next day and will remain potent for 3 days. After that, or if you use more than half during the next 3 days, you will need to refresh it.
Firm Starter:        
Remove the barm from the refrigerator and measure it out 1 hour before making the firm starter to take off the chill. Transfer it to a small bowl, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and allow it to warm up for 1 hour.
Add the flour to the bowl and mix together the barm and the flour, adding only enough additional water so that you can knead this into a small bal. You do not need to work this very long, just until all the flour is hydrated and the harm is evenly distributed. Lightly oil a small bowl with spray oil, and place the starter in the bowl or bag, turning to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl.
Ferment at room temperature for approximately 4 hours, or until the starter has at least doubled in size. If it takes more time than 4 hours, give it additional time, checking every hour or so. Then, put it into the refrigerator overnight.
Make the dough and bake the  bread:

Remove the starter from the refrigerator 1 hour before making the dough. Cut it into about 10 small pieces with a pastry scraper or serrated knife. Mist with spray oil, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to take off the chill.
Transfer the starter to the mixing bowl. Add the three cups of water and the  l tbsp of salt. Using a whisk, stir for about 1 minute, to thoroughly disolve the starter. Add the flour, a bit at a time, stirring well(use flat beater). After you have added 5 cups of flour, the dough should be firm enough to knead. Put in dough hook and knead for 8-9 minutes, gradually adding the remaining flour until the dough is nicely elastic and soft, but still firm enough to hold itself. (Don’t be concerned if you use less than the 8 cups. Different flours have varying effects on hydration.)
Shape the dough into a tight ball. Place in a large floured cloth, in a round shallow basket(10 “).Place the dough top(smooth side down). Loosely fold the cloth over the dough. Set aside at room temp for a minimum of 6 hours, up to 12 hours. The dough will rise very slowly, but should double in size. To be certain that you have not overproofed the bread, poke a finger in the dough. If the dough does not spring back, the dough is ready.  An overproofed dough will not spring up, nor will it be easy to slash the bread with the razor.

40 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 550F.
Lightly dust a pizza peel with semolina, invert the loaf onto the peel, and slash the top of the bread several times so that it can expand evenly during baking. Quickly place the bread on the stone. Spray the oven when bread is placed in oven (reduce the temperature to 500F), and again three more times during the next 6 minutes. The bread will reach its full height in the first 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 425F; and continue baking until the crust is a deep golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped (an instant read thermometer should read between 200 and 205F), an additional 30-35  minutes(total time 45-50 min).
Do not slice the bread for at least 1 hour, as it will continue to bake as it rests. For best results, store the bread in a paper or cloth bag once it is thorughly cooled. Plastic will tend to soften the dense crust. It should stay fresh for about four days. A good idea is to cut the miche into quarters after waiting about three hours for the bread to cool off. Wrap each quarter in plastic wrap and place each  quarter in a gallon freezer bag. Place in the freezer. When defrosting, keep the piece wrapped and sealed until defrosted.

                                       – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NOTES : Like many people who start out to make bread, I made a white bread, tasteless baguettes (although I thought them good at the time) and others like a psuedo Italian with cheese. In short I had no focus. In 1999, on one of my many trips to France, I had occasion to visit the late Lionel Poilane’s bakery on the Cherche-Midi in Paris. After looking over the breads, I asked if I could descend to the basement oven room. After spending two hours wandering around that dark and quiet room, and watching the preparation of the massive 2 kilo miches that defined Poilane, I was hooked. I clearly knew what I had in mind. I only wanted to use water, flour and salt.  And make the very best breads that I could!
After tasting countless pieces of his bread, working with recipes from Peter Reinhart and Patricia Wells, along with my own instincts, I combined what I think to be the best of them all, in one 5 pound miche. Authentic? No. Yet my efforts remind me of his breads.

Bethesdabakers’ Take On Alan Zelt’s Poilâne’s 2k Mîche

Although I am not at all sure about the idea of trying to imitate someone else’s bread, there were so many interesting aspects of this recipe that I spent a number of weeks testing it out and modifying it to fit my own methods – trying little modifications to see how they affected the final product.

I corresponded with Alan Zelt and he was quite happy for me to tinker around with it and very kindly allowed me to post it on the site along with my own version.

I translated it into metric, tried it straight a couple of times and then tried it using my own wheat flour starter because I didn’t want to be bothered with maintaining two starters. I simplified it and did comparative tastings with various victims and concluded that my final version was good enough to warrant the changes.

It was a really valuable learning experience and I recommend that you try Alan’s version before my cut down one. It also gave me the idea of making my basic bread in 2k sizes.

1st Refreshment – morning

Take starter from fridge.
Starter                                        26g
Water                                         60g
Rye flour                                   70g

Mix, cover, stand at room temperature.

2nd Refreshment – bedtime

Starter                                      114g
Water                                         40g
Plain Flour                              128g

Mix and knead to form a ball, cover, stand at room temperature.

The Dough – following morning

Starter                                      282g
Water                                       684g
Plain Flour                              786g
Spelt Flour                              170g
Rye Flour                                  64g
Salt                                             28g

Break up the starter and whisk it into the water. Add the remaining ingredients and mix for 8 minutes in the machine. Form into a loose ball and allow to stand for 15 minutes. Form into a boule and place in a ten or eleven inch banneton. (These days I would probably have a four hour bulk fermentation stage at this point with hourly stretching and folding.)

Depending on your starter and the temperature, rising should take between 6-10 hours.

Preheat the oven to Gas 9 (475F, 240C) – hotter if you can. Turn out the dough, slash and bake spraying the oven a few times in the first 15 minutes. You may want to turn down the oven but, in my oven, even though the crust looks as though it is scorching, 50 minutes baking at full ahead gives a comparatively thin crust and a moist crumb. This is a big loaf.

Improves with standing a few hours or overnight.

Matt from the forum very kindly sent me a chunk of genuine Poilâne from the London branch. The slice on the right is theirs and the one on the left is mine.

More thoughts on Poilâne and other “great bakers” here