I was making bread the other day and suddenly found a finger in it.
…Cognitively speaking. (Not a real finger, don’t panic….) But writers’ brains are such strange places sometimes. Here’s today’s example.
My short-term memory is a constant joke around here. You can (as happened this morning) tell me that the weather station’s batteries are kaput and can’t be charged in the normal battery recharger, meaning they have to be put into one of the more technologically challenged ones… and I will still, two hours later, look at the weather station and remark, “Oh look, its batteries have finally gone south” — to the sound of ironic laughter from Himself Upstairs. (And I’ll then recall the whole previous conversation perfectly well, but will have mislaid it between times.) Some of this is Not Paying Attention, but other aspects of it are just Sixtyish Brain Fail.
However. Ask me for a quote from a book I read forty years ago, and no problem, there it is. As you shall hear…
So I’m working with this recipe from Raymond Blanc for the first time, because the other evening I went to sleep with the TV running (I sometimes do) and it was showing an episode of Blanc’s “Kitchen Secrets” series from last year, the one about bread. Now, bread is a passion with me. (A master post about this will turn up in a day or three so I don’t keep losing some of the links I keep looking for.) Bad bread is everywhere — I can’t think of another place where Sturgeon’s Law applies so rigorously; in bread’s case it’s because of the pestilent ubiquity of something called the Chorleywood Bread Process. (More about this in another post, but originally this process was devised as a way to make decent bread in large quantities from the soft wheats that are all that will grow in the British Isles. It uses yeast as a flavoring rather than as a way to develop the bread naturally: gluten is developed in this process by violent physical agitation and the addition of ever-increasing types and amounts of additives. Ick.)
Good bread, though, is something I can’t get enough of. This is one of the reasons I love Switzerland so much. (German bread is almost as good as Swiss, generally, but the Swiss in my opinion have a slight edge.) And any way to make good bread at home is worth knowing about. Add to that the fact that it’s Raymond Blanc sharing his method for pain de campagne on this particular show, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to try it out as soon as I was conscious again. (I really like Blanc. Not only does his passion for good food burn with a pure bright flame that should be visible from space, but he’s funny, dry, not afraid to make fun of himself, and he doesn’t seem to feel the need to prove how great a chef he is by screaming at people.)
So this recipe: like most good country breads of central Europe, rye flour is involved. And rye is typically such a nuisance to work with. It makes the dough sticky, it’s a pain to clean up, it gets everywhere. There I am at the worktop this morning, dealing with the quite sticky dough — look at the way the gluten’s got it stringing in the image underneath here, so lovely — scraping it out onto the floured work surface and starting to get to grips with it. Or it with me, because any dough with rye in it has a life of its own beyond that of the yeast. I slice the dough into four and start shaping it, and the usual struggle for domination begins. It’s climbing up my wrists, it’s trying to attach itself to my clothes, it’s under my nails. I look down at the hands and sigh and wonder where the nail brush is.
And suddenly I see, in the back of my head, the image of a woman’s severed finger, her pinky to be precise, with a signet ring on it. And a voice speaks up from the depths of time, as it were in narration, or sort of a caption, and it says:
“…This cannot be my wife’s finger, because it’s got rye dough underneath the fingernail, and my wife has never kneaded rye dough in her life.”
And I stop what I’m doing and my mouth falls open. Not so much with the thought “Where the hell did that come from?”, because I know where it came from: I’m kneading rye dough, and the association was instantaneous. The thought that is now making me crazy is, “What fairy tale is that?”
And instantly I despair, because if there’s one thing we have a lot of in this house, it’s books of legends and fairy tales. It is going to take forever to settle this issue, and it’s going to drive me crazy until I do.
…And of course the despair doesn’t last that long. In another time it would have, because I’d have had to go through all those books. But these days, Google Is Our Friend many times every day. So once I manage to get the dough shaped (two baguettes, two oval loaves) and put aside for the dough’s second rising, I go off to Google and search on the phrase “has been kneading rye dough”. Too precise. Knock it back to “kneading rye dough” and “fairy tale” and only one result comes up: a reference to the great Welsh epic tale, the Mabionigion.
So now I know where I am without really having to check the backstory (though I do anyway to see if I remember the setup correctly). And some detail comes up that makes me laugh, because the dialogue might as well have come out of Sherlock Holmes as out of the man who actually utters it, a Welsh Prince named Elphin.
The original material is here and on the page after. (It is, as I expected, Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, which goes back to 1849. (ETA: the pages aren’t displaying at the moment — you may need to check their cached versions at Google.) But let me sum it up for you.
Elphin has been lucky enough to pull out of a weir in a river near his home a miraculous child, the (soon to be famous) prophet, bard and wizard Taliesin. Elphin takes the child home and he and his wife more or less adopt this prodigy (which frankly is a smart move). Then after a while Elphin has to go off to spend Christmas with his uncle, a petty king named Maelgwyn. There is a lot of sucking up to Maelgwyn by all and sundry during this period, especially on the subject of his queen, who is more beautiful and modest and graceful and blah de blah de blah than all the other women in the kingdom, or so everybody keeps telling Maelgwyn, this being the local level of Speaking Truth To Power, i.e. Not Very High.
Well, somewhere in this process — and it’s only fair to suggest, though gently, that these islands being what they are at Christmas, Drink Has Been Taken — somewhere in here, Elphin, who loves his wife a lot, actually commits the tactical error of saying what he’s thinking: that his wife is pretty damn beautiful and graceful and modest and blah de blah de blah on her own, thank you very much, and at least as much so as the queen. …Well, you can see where this is going. Maelgwyn throws Elphin’s butt into the dungeon and sends a courtier off to see if Elphin’s wife is all she’s cracked up to be.
The man sent off to do this is a schmuck named Rhun (“the most graceless man in the world: there was neither wife nor maiden with whom he had held converse but he was afterwards evil-spoken of”). Rhun heads for Elphin’s castle with the intent to prove that Elphin’s wife is in fact not what she’s cracked up to be, thereby gaining favor with Maelgwyn.
It’s at this point that little Taliesin, who plainly has his prophecy engine fully engaged, tells Elphin’s wife that a jerk is heading in their direction to dishonor her. “So here,” says the baby prophet/bard, “is what you’re going to do. Find one of your housemaids. Dress her in your clothes and jewelry. Sit her down at table as if she was having dinner. Let Rhun the Jerk find her instead of you. What happens is not going to be pretty, sorry about that, but it’s her or you.”
And so it is done. Rhun shows up, finds this woman looking like Elphin’s noble wife and doing the things he thinks she should be doing, and he gets to work. She invites him to dinner (typical Celtic hospitality), indeed dinner and supper, and sometime during supper he drugs her wine. She falls over unconscious, and Rhun chops off her pinky — with Elphin’s signet ring on it — and bears it away as “proof” that Elphin’s wonderful wife got so plastered with a total stranger that she didn’t even feel this happening. (The implication being, of course, that he could have done, and maybe did do, all kinds of other things to her as well.)
So Rhun returns to his master, shows him the finger, and Maelgwyn is very pleased. He has Elphin brought up out of the dungeon and “chides him”, saying (I’m paraphrasing here), “Look, dummy, you ought to know that you can’t trust a woman any further than you can throw her, and here’s the proof: your wife’s finger, your signet ring, what can you possibly say?”
Elphin takes one look at the finger and says, “Lord, no question that’s my ring: everybody knows what that looks like. But as to the finger? A few things. First, this wouldn’t even stay on my wife’s thumb, her fingers are so small. But you can see from the marks how the thing’s been forced onto this finger. Second, my wife cuts her nails once a week: Saturday nights, actually. This nail hasn’t been trimmed for a month. And third… if you look under this nail, you’ll see that whoever it belonged to was kneading rye dough in the last three days. And my wife, being a gently-reared princess, has never kneaded rye dough in her natural life. Soooo…”
Needless to say, cheeking a King like this to his face gets Elphin’s butt chucked back in the dungeon again. But it’s all right, because Taliesin the Wonder Kid is on the case. He heads off to Maelgwyn’s castle, springs his foster-father, makes everyone else look profoundly stupid, and otherwise generally saves the day. (You still feel pretty damn sorry for the poor housemaid, though. Fortunately, this being a Celtic culture, she would very likely have been entitled to some form of compensation.)
…Meanwhile, all I can do is sit here and wonder at the human brain, which can pull a fairly complete memory of something like this out of the depths of decades‘ worth of time (because it has to be easily thirty years since I last read the Mabinogion through ) at the mere invocation of the phrase “kneading rye dough”.
Anyway, now all I have to do is get the rest of the rye dough out from under my nails…
Now that I’ve made this recipe twice: just a thought or three for those of you who might be thinking of attempting it.
First of all: seriously, spring for bread flour if you’re going to make this. The first time I did the recipe it was with a standard Irish “strong white” flour. Not that the results weren’t just fine. But the second time, I used a flour that was a lot heavier on the hard wheat, and the results were significantly better.
Secondly, about the kneading times: This is serious business here. Blanc is very specific about the times in the basic recipe, and following them pays off. The first kneading period is more about mixing and letting the liquid be absorbed, as he says: the second is about developing the gluten in the flour. Then, after the first rise, even though the resulting dough is incredibly sloppy-looking, it is also surprisingly easy to manage once you start shaping it. Hint here: don’t be afraid to use a fair amount of extra flour to make the shaping easier, but at the same time try to knead as little of that extra flour into the shaped dough as you can. (This recipe has caused me to look at all other recipes I’ve used that have cautioned against “overkneading” and made me wonder whether I’ve actually been underkneading all this while.)
Another note: this dough flops out fairly flat as it rises the second time. If you want a higher-standing loaf, use a high-sided pan. (For the baguette above I used a specialist baguette pan.) You could do this recipe in standard loaf pans and it’d work fine, as far as I can tell. But you get more / better crust if you bake it naked. (NB: you would need four US-sized loaf pans if you choose to do it that way. Supported, no question that this dough would fill them.) Additionally: during the second rise I spritzed the loaves with water a few times (mostly because I was out of saran wrap / clingfilm with which to cover them, and had fallen back on damp towels tented over the loaves on upended glasses. This worked very well. May have made the crusts a little crisper as well).
Also, re pre-baking prep: You can eggwash the shaped dough before baking if you like, but it’s not necessary. The baguette above was baked naked and looks nice enough. (Probably also more traditional that way: I doubt that pain de campagne is eggwashed when baked on its home ground.)
Re the yeast: Fresh works better if you can get it. Specifically, the bread’s flavor is improved.
Re additives: I put caraway in the baguettes the second time around (I’ve always been a sucker for a good Jewish rye, something which is a bit thin on the ground in Ireland). It worked brilliantly.
…So there you have it. This is a bread very much worth making. (I tell you… slices of that baguette still warm, with Boursin smeared all over them: OMNOMNOM.)