Le pain au levain fait main/ Handmade sourdough bread

First bread baked in the oven of Sainte Anne since before COVID-19.

I have hesitated all summer long to bake a load of bread in our precious oven. For one, I haven’t baked in it since the summer of 2019. I have heated it up a few times with small fires just to “season” the bricks but not wanting to shock them with a full-blown fire of 250 degrees Celsius. To heat up the oven is a commitment of resources that one should never waste – mainly wheat and wood. I finally pushed myself to get going again though still in a smaller way than will become the norm. I made 10 loaves of approximately 1 kilo each – enough to justify getting back “online” but not too much in case the bread didn’t turn out as hoped for.

Le pétrin – placed in line with the morning sun to help warm it. I can make 50 kilos of bread at a time in this pétrin.

I got up at 3:45 AM to get my levain started. I had been experimenting with different flours for the leaven over the summer and had a lot of poor results. I keep some very dense sourdough starter in the fridge and have no real difficulty waking it up. It usually takes me about 5-6 hours for the starter to bring the leaven to full bloom, ready to make bread. I made 1 kilo of leaven for this batch of 10 loaves.

Top: 3.25 liters of water with 80 gm sea salt. Middle: 5 kilos bread flour with seeds. Bottom: 1 kg of leaven.

Time to mix it up.

Once the ingredients are mixed together in an homogenous, lumpy, sticky mass, give it a few gentle pats, cover with a towel and let rest for about 40 minutes. Now, the rest of my day is planned:

  • 4:00 AM prepare the leaven, go back to sleep
  • 9:30 AM Leaven is ready. Measure flour, salt, warm water
  • 9:45 AM mix dough, let rest 40 minutes
  • 10:30 AM turn and stretch the dough
  • 11 AM turn and stretch the dough
  • 11:30 AM turn and stretch the dough
  • 12:00 PM turn and stretch the dough
  • 1:00 PM turn and stretch the dough
  • 2:00 PM turn and stretch the dough
  • 3:00 PM divide the dough into 1 kg portions and shape the dough into tight balls. Place in individual baskets and cover with a towel. If the outer skin holds the tension during this process, then the dough should be strong enough to hold together as it continues to ferment and expand.
  • Prepare the wood-fired oven during the bread’s final fermentation. It takes about 3 hours to bring our 2 meter diameter oven up to temp. When the soot from the burning wood falls off of the bricks and the oven is clean again, remove all wood and embers, and clean the floor of the oven with a very wet towel. This hydrates the oven to prevent the crust from forming too early which allow more moisture to escape the dough. Once this is done, close the oven door for a few minutes to allow the heat to distribute evenly.
  • 6:30 PM If the bread has done its job and doubled in volume and is ready for the oven.
  • 6:30-7:30 PM Baking bread. One hour should be enough. However, test a loaf to see if it’s ready or not. I tested this load of bread and they were not ready. I left them in for another 30 minutes. AS IT TURNS OUT, I hadn’t closed the oven door really well and I lost some heat. In the end, the bread came out nicely cooked through and through.
  • 8:00 PM Put the bread in a safe place and wait til morning to enjoy it.
Sourdough, butter, honey. What a beautiful day. Merci, Dieu.