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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Miche to Levain to Baguette: Baking at King Arthur

 I recently spent three days at King Arthur in Norwich, VT., in a professional-level survey of classical French breads. The class was taught by Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur, and James MacGuire, a distinguished chef and baker from Montreal. Mr. Hamelman is of course well-known as the director of the Bakery and Bakery Education Center at KA, and the author of Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes. Mr. MacGuire is the past owner of La Boulangerie Passe_Partout in Montreal, and most recently the Technical Editor of Raymond Calvel's book, The Taste of Bread.

Jeffrey Hamelman (left) and James MacGuire:

The twelve students in our class ranged from serious hobby bakers to professional chefs and bakery owners. Our skillful instructors managed to tailor the content to our varying skill levels, with apparent ease. They conveyed a tremendous amount of technical information and hands-on practice packed into the three days, enhanced by their experience and commentary.

Our instructors at work:

Day One: An overview, an explanation of sourdough chemistry, discussion of the history of French Bread, formation of pain au levain loaves to be retarded overnight.

After leaving the starter for two variations on pain au levain to ferment overnight, we departed to absorb and reflect on the day's learning. At least I did; others were more sensible and went out to eat.

I could already see that there have been major flaws in my sourdough technique. For example, it's a bad idea to leave it in the fridge for a few months while you're travelling. The yeasts get discouraged, and the lactic bacteria take advantage. James MacGuire explained how he used to take it with him, sometimes mixing in another build wherever he happened to be. His business travel probably was baking-oriented, I thought.... wouldn't work for me at the home office. Or would it?

On day two, we mixed the three doughs for the day: pain au levain, pain au levain - 15% whole grain, and Miche Point-a-Callier. I was very excited to be working on the Miche, since it's been my quest since 2003.
I confessed that during a trip to Paris in October of that year, while stumbling around hungry in the late afternoon, we saw a bakery with a strange sign in the form of a large "P"..... This turned out to be Poilane, of course, and the room was lined with strange, huge disks of dark-brown bread. I asked for a baguette. Fortunately, I didn't understand the comments this produced, and I went away with a miche. I'll never forget slicing bits off in our tiny but expensive hotel room, accompanied with terrine from the Lafayette and some excellent wine. Ahh.

James gave us a fascinating tour through the history of French bread, and the development of techniques such as the autolyze, by Professor Calvel. While this was a professional class, the basics of Baker's Percentage, Desired Dough Temperature, Conversion factoring, and proofing schedules were discussed.

KA uses a spiral mixer, to limit oxidation of the dough, and to maximize bread taste and quality. There would be more about this on day three, but already the results of correct process were evident.

We baked off the loaves which had been cold-retarded overnight, and as expected, the flavor was, well, tangier than many people (including me) would desire. This served to reinforce the discussion of sourdough characteristics and requirements. I silently vowed to chuck my crusty container of refrigerated sludge ASAP.

Jeffrey folding a dough to develop structure.

Now the first real bake. KA has a fabulous French deck oven with great capacity. We participated as the master bakers demonstrated slashing and loading our loaves. This is an area where even experienced bakers have problems. You must have a firm and quick hand.

The results were worth the wait:

On day three, it was all baguettes. We made three variations: KA French Bread with Poolish, Baguette de Tradition, and one that was to demonstrate what NOT to do: Intensive mix french bread, an overworked, oxidized loaf. In addition, James made a small batch of a completely un-kneaded, six-fold french bread, which preserves maximum flavor and integrity of the flour itself.

With baguettes, there are a few right ways to do things, and so many wrong ways. I've personally tried out many of those. We worked hard on learning correct forming and slashing techniques.

Baking the baguettes was a rapid-fire process of flipping, slashing, loading for over a hundred loaves in all. Jeffrey's expert coordination made it possible to do the loads in quick succession; he moves rapidly, and with assurance.

Again, the results impressed:
The final analysis. We examined the crumb of each type of baguette, noting differences in hole size, texture, aroma, and crust.

Many thanks to Jeffrey Hamelman, James MacGuire, and the good people at King Arthur for this experience.


  1. Thanks for the report! It sounds like a very instructive three days.

  2. Great photo spread and info. Thank you.

  3. If there are any drawbacks to the baking stone, it is that they can be expensive, and because of their weight a bit clumsy in the kitchen. baking sheet


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