French Country Braid

 

Next to Ciabatta, this is my favorite bread to make!

 

It takes three days to make but it is worth the wait.  I typically make it for Thanksgiving and this year was no different.  I have made this bread into loaves and rolls before but this year I tried my hand at braiding the loaves.  When I brought them to a friend’s house for the meal, they automatically assumed I bought them!  Which I guess is a good thing although being the obsessive baker that I am, I tried not to be offended at this assumption!

 

It has a hearty flavor and a dense but airy crumb (not sure how that happens but it’s true).

 

I first learned how to make “Pain de Campagne” in the Cook Street Artisan Bread Baking class where Strudel and I met.  We learned how to make many things including ciabatta and our favorite recipe!

 

Don’t let the three days scare you.  Each step is easy and by the time you start manipulating this bread into loaves or rolls, it’s the most wonderful texture and so much fun to work with.

 

French Country Bread

makes 2 braided loaves or about 12 to 15 large rolls

 

Day 1 AM: takes 5 minutes

pinch of active dry yeast

1 c. cool water

1 c. whole wheat flour

 

This is the flavor base, it will sit at room temperature for 24 hours and develop flavor so feel free to play with this a bit.  This time I actually used 1 c. white whole wheat and added a half cup of rolled oats.  Combine all of the ingredients together, cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature.  This step was so insignificant (but important) that I forgot to take a picture!

 

Day 2 AM: takes 5 minutes

 

starter from day 1

2 c. cool water

3 c. all-purpose flour

 

Add the water and flour to the starter and mix just until combined.  Cover again with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

 

Day 2 PM: 30 minutes hands-on, total time 2.5 hours

AM starter

1 t. active dry yeast

1 T. + 1 t. salt

2 to 3 c. all-purpose flour

 

Dissolve the yeast in a small amount of warm water and add it to the starter.  Stir in 1 c. of the flour (preferably with a stand mixer and knead hook) and then knead in the salt.  Add another cup of flour and knead for about 5 minutes.  If the dough is still sticking to the bowl slowly sprinkle in more flour while kneading vigorously until the dough is no longer sticking to the bowl and is a nice smooth mass.  Place the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap (or shower cap) and let rise for about 2 hours.  During those 2 hours with a bowl scraper, turn the dough two to three times to help develop the gluten.

 

 

Place the dough on a well floured board cut into two sections.  Working with one section at a time, cut it into 3 sections, roll into fat snakes (about 12 inches long) and braid the bread.

 

Tuck each end up under itself and place on a piece of parchment paper.  Repeat this process making the other braided loaf.  Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until the next morning.  Important time saver:  At this point the loaves can be frozen and when ready to bake let thaw at room temperature (covered with a moist warm tea towel, see below) for several hours until no longer frozen and then proceed with the baking step.

Day 3 AM: 5 minutes hands- on, 2 to 3 hours total time

Remove the loaves from the refrigerator, remove plastic wrap.  Spray a tea towel with some water and microwave for 20 seconds.  Lay the warm towel directly over the loaves and let sit at room temperature for about 2 hours or until cool but not cold.  During the last 30 minutes of resting, preheat the oven to 450 degrees fahrenheit with a small pan of water on the lower rack of the oven.  When cool, place the loaves in the oven and during the first 5 minutes of baking spritz the loaves with water, this will help further develop the chewy crust.  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the loaves are very golden brown on top and bottom.

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