Pain au Levain, the classic French bread
A levain is a mixture of natural starter (sourdough or chef) plus either flour or flour and water. In this case, two types of flour and water are used to build the levain. So let's get started. A scale is required, of course.
2½ oz sourdough starterLet's talk about water for a moment. Most of you use water from a city- or county-owned utility. If you don't know for certain that your water comes from a well or natural spring, assume it has been chlorinated. The best thing you can do for yourself, your bread, and the plants you water is to let that tap water sit uncovered for 24 hours before using it so any chlorine will evaporate.
5 oz unbleached flour
3 oz whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
2/3 cup room temperature water
levainIf you wish, you can bring the levain to room temperature, but it really isn't necessary. Cut or pull apart the levain into 10-12 pieces and place in the workbowl of your stand mixer, then add the yeast and water. Mix on the lowest speed with the paddle for about a minute to loosen the levain. You can make this without added yeast, but adding yeast gives better lift and texture.
¼ oz active dry yeast (optional)
11 oz lukewarm water
16 oz unbleached flour
0.6 oz (17 g) kosher salt
Turn out onto a lightly-floured work surface or into a lightly-oiled bowl. Wait ten minutes. Do a stretch-and-fold by lifting and stretching the top portion of the dough, then folding it over. Repeat with the bottom and both sides, then form the dough into a ball, tucking the sides under to create some surface tension.
A somewhat-easier-to-visualize version is to pick up the ball of dough in both hands and pull the hands apart without breaking the dough--you'll feel the gluten stretching. Set it down, folding in thirds, then turn it 90° and repeat. Then do the tucking thing to make a ball.
You can improve the flavor of any bread by doing the first rise overnight in the refrigerator. In fact, let it sit there for two or three days. The yeast works much more slowly, but has the time to really leave behind some excellent flavor. Try it sometime.
Baking DayFinally, it's baking day. Two hours before you want to bake, pull the dough out of the refrigerator. Gently turn it out of the bowl (wet hands and a wet pastry scraper make this possible) onto a lightly-floured work surface. You can form the entire mass into a single boule if you wish, or use the wet pastry scraper to cut the dough in half to form two smaller boules or two batons. Be gentle so that you won't degas the dough.
Form batons by gently shaking and pushing half the dough into a long rectangle. Then fold it in thirds lengthwise, pressing the folds into each other with the side of your hand. Turn it fold-side down, then shake it gently to extend the length. When it's long enough, transfer the baton to a lightly-greased French Bread Pan. After forming the second baton, let the bread proof at room temperature for about two hours. The rise will not be dramatic, but you should get to about 1½ times the formed size before baking.
About 15-20 minutes before baking, set the oven to 500°F and put a sheet pan or old cast iron skillet on the lower rack. Have a cup of water standing by for later. Uncover the breads and very lightly dust with flour. Then, with a gentle hand, carefully brush off the excess flour. This gives the bread a gluten jacket, which seems to make for a better crust.
Now, open the oven, pour the water into the sheet pan or skillet (take your glasses off first). Immediately slide your bread into the oven, close the door, and lower the heat to 450°F. Wait 12 minutes, then rotate the bread pan. Continue baking another 24 minutes, until the internal temperature at the center of the loaf exceeds 185°F. Cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing and serving.
I know it seems complicated, and it can take a week, but believe me, it's just not that hard once you've done it a couple of times. If you don't have sourdough starter, it's really easy. Here are step-by-step instructions.