For our traditional Thanksgiving dinner gathering at the home of friends, I always bake bread and a pie or tart. For this year’s bread I decided to try a kind I’d never made before. I chose a recipe from Normandy, an interesting looking pain de campagne attributed to “one of the great boulangers of France” by Bernard Clayton in his book The Breads of France. Clayton’s recipe makes a very large round loaf with a decoration of wheat stalks of dough baked onto the crust, which I thought would be festive and appropriately seasonal.
I began the bread the morning before Thanksgiving, making a starter with equal parts of bread flour and whole wheat flour, plus water with – unusually – a spoonful of honey to encourage the yeast. I let that ferment on the kitchen counter all day, and after dinner I made up the full dough, adding more water, flours, and salt. After kneading it, I put the mixing bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
In the morning the dough had risen energetically. I shaped it into a big round loaf, saving out a cup of dough for the decoration, and let the loaf rise for three hours. Then it was time to sculpt those wheat stalks. The instructions were to
- divide the reserved dough in 3 pieces and roll each into a 12-inch strand
- starting 4 inches from one end, braid the 3 strands together to that end
- with scissors, make little angular cuts left, right, and center down 5 inches from the other end of each strand, “to create grains of wheat protruding from the stalk before harvest.”
It sounded easy enough, but I’m not clever at this kind of work. First, my strands wouldn’t roll into neat plump cylinders: They developed stretch marks and kept trying to flatten. Then when I made the scissor cuts, the dough tended to close itself right back together. The result I finally achieved looked less like wheat stalks than like ends of rope that had been chewed on by a puppy.
But that was the best I could do, and I had to live with it. So I gamely laid out the construction on the risen loaf and put it in the oven for about an hour. Et voilà: pain de campagne de Honfleur.
As you can see, the loaf itself came out looking good: well browned, a foot across, over 4 inches high, and weighing a substantial 3 pounds. To my eyes, the decoration was laughable, but when I brought out the bread at the dinner party and invited guesses as to what it was, my hostess actually said “wheat stalks?” It’s nice to have kind friends! Fortunately, the bread tasted good – in fact, very good. It had a fine, even crumb and a warm, faintly nutty aroma: a hefty, hearty country loaf. Very useful for soaking up the turkey’s gravy at dinnertime, and also for making turkey sandwiches the next day.
The hazelnut tart that I also made for the Thanksgiving dinner party was a bit of an adventure too, but this episode has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for next week’s post.