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Pain au Levain

Pair With: Oberon Los Carneros Chardonnay

Provided by: The Model Bakery

Makes 2 loaves


1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp Wild Yeast Grape Starter
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp bread flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
3 1/3 cups water, plus more for testing the levain
5 3/4 cups plus 2 Tbsp bread flour, plus more as needed
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
4 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
Semolina for the baker’s peel

Special Equipment
Two 8-inch/20 cm round bannetons or colanders
2 linen or cotton towels (if using the bannetons are unlined, or if using colanders)
Serrated knife
Baking stone
Baker’s peel

The day before baking, mix the water and starter together in a small bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup of bread flour and the whole wheat flour, and stir to make a thick batter. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the levain for 8 to 12 hours.

Stir the remaining 2 Tbsp of flour into the levain. Cover and let stand in a warm place until it is bubbling and visibly risen, about 1 1/2 hours. To test for rising power, drop a heaping 1 Tbsp of the levain into about 1 cup water. The levain should float. If not, carefully pour out and discard the water, return the levain to its bowl, cover and let stand for another hour or so until a test spoonful floats in water.

Pour the water into a large bowl. Add all of the levain to the water. Squeeze the mixture with your hands to break up the levain. Gradually stir in all of the bread and whole wheat flours and mix to make a wet, sticky dough, being sure that the flour is absorbed. (To use a stand mixer, combine the water and levain in the mixer bowl. Mix with the paddle attachment on low speed until combined. Gradually add the flours to make a sticky dough. Do not remove the paddle attachment.) Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle the salt evenly over the dough. Using wet hands, squeeze the dough well to mix in the salt. (Or mix into the dough in the stand mixer bowl on low speed. Remove the paddle attachment. Scrape the dough into a large mixing bowl.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes.

As the flour absorbs the liquid, the dough will look a bit firmer and less wet. Using wet hands, starting at the edge of the dough, pull up about one-quarter from the mass, stretching it about 10 inches, and fold over the top of the dough. Repeat with the remaining dough, one quarter at a time. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes.

The dough will continue to firm up. (If you are making one of the variations below, add the additional ingredients at this point.) Repeat the folding process, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand 20 minutes.

The dough will be somewhat firmer, and have risen slightly, but not doubled. Repeat the folding process a third time.  Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 and up to 24 hours.

The next day, using a bowl scraper to release the dough from the bowl, turn out the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. The dough will be very tacky, but that is what you want. The flour on the work surface will keep the dough from sticking. Do not punch the dough down; you want to retain as many of the air pockets as possible. Cut the dough in half. Place one portion of dough in front of you on a lightly floured work surface. Cupping your hands slightly, place them on either side of the dough. Tuck the sides of the dough underneath the mass, gently stretching the surface of the dough to make it taut. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Generously dust the insides of two 8-inch diameter bannetons with flour. Or, line each of two 8-inch colanders or bowls with linen or cotton (but not terrycloth) towels, and generously coat with flour. Be sure the banneton or cloth is well floured so the dough won’t stick. Turn each ball upside dough and place, smooth side down, in a banneton. Pinch the loose ends of the loaf together. Sprinkle more flour over each. Loosely cover each banneton with plastic wrap. Let stand in a warm place until the dough looks lightly inflated but not doubled (when poked with a fingertip, the hole left will fill in slowly), about 2 hours.

Position a rack in the lower third in the oven and place a baking stone on the rack. Put a heavy pot, with about 6-qt capacity and at least 9 in wide, upside down, on the stone. Preheat the oven, with the stone and pot, to 500ºF.

Sprinkle a baker’s peel with semolina. Carefully turn out one loaf onto the peel. The dough is soft, and will spread slightly on the peel. Using a serrated knife, quickly cut a shallow 4-in square in the top of the ball. If the kitchen is very warm, refrigerate the remaining loaf while baking the first.

The next set of actions happen quickly, so understand the process so you can move with confidence. Put on potholder gloves or equip yourself with thick potholders. Open the oven, grab the hot pot by the sides, and put the pot, still upside down, on the stove. Slide the rack with the stone slightly out of the oven. Slip the bread off the peel onto the stove. Replace the pot, upside down, over the bread on the stone. Slide the rack and stone back into the oven and close the oven door. Bake for 20 minutes.

Using the potholders, remove the pot. Reduce the oven temperature to 450ºF. Continue baking until the bread is deep golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 20 minutes more. If you have any concerns that the bread is done, you can take its temperature through the bottom crust with an instant-read thermometer; it should read at least 190ºF.

Using the baking peel, transfer the bread to a wire cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining dough. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing.

Toasted Walnut and Sage Bread
After the bread has fermented for 40 minutes, in Step 6, add 2 cups toasted and coarsely chopped walnuts and 2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage to the dough, and fold as directed. The walnuts and sage will continue to be incorporated as the dough is folded at the end of the 2- and 3-hour fermentations.

Autumn Pain au Levain
After the bread has fermented for 40 minutes, in Step 6, add 1 cup dried cranberries and 1 cup toasted and coarsely chopped walnuts to the dough and fold as directed.

Country Olive Pain au Levain with Rosemary
After the bread has fermented for 40 minutes, in Step 6, add 1 cup pitted and coarsely chopped black and green olives (we use an herbed Provencal mix from France), and 2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary, and fold as directed.

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