These Poolish Games

I remember hearing Jewel sing “These Foolish Games” on the television at some point in high school. My dad was in the room and said “who’s the hottie?” I glared at him in teenage consternation and pointed out that, um, she wasn’t at all hot, and she had really snaggly teeth, and married men who are my dad shouldn’t be looking at girls who are not my mother, and by the way, GROSS. He shrugged in disagreement, and then I noticed that Jewel was very clearly not wearing a bra under her chiffon-y shirt. Her nippity-naps were totally visible. It was at that moment that I realized that it didn’t matter WHAT you looked like, or if you had all of your teeth, or if you had a face like Bebop from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons—all that was required to be “hot” to a regular guy was setting your titties free underneath a shirt.

I promptly tattled to my mom that dad was being a lech.

Not that I’m judging Jewel’s looks or anything. So if there are any of you who are going to be like “OMG, she’s such a talented musician” or “She’s so gorgeous, where do you get off criticizing her” or “She lived in a VAN without a TOILET, let alone orthodontia,” you can stick it up your butts right now. Because this post isn’t even ABOUT Jewel. Nor is it about These Foolish Games. It was merely a play on words, so that I could introduce you to a lovely way to make bread. So…there.

The POOLISH is basically a loose pre-ferment used in bread-baking. This means, essentially, that you make a sludge of flour, water, and yeast and allow it to sit for 8-48 hours so that the yeast can get all crunk and start getting old men to buy it cases of Keystone Light, and inviting its friends over and breaking its mom’s antiques and generally having a messy, belch-intensive party up in the flour and water.

In baking a regular loaf of bread without a pre-ferment, your yeast don’t have enough time to get fully rowdy. The party, at that point, gets about as fun and freewheeling as a chess club tournament. Then you bake it and end the fun altogether. Less fun=less flavor. So when you want to have that distinctive, sour-ish taste or big, sexy air pockets that you get in baguettes, ciabatta, or focaccia…well, you’re going to want to make a poolish.

This recipe for Oven-Fried Bread is based on a ratio given to me by my delightful German chef-instructor at school, and when I baked the focaccia variation of it there it worked like gangbusters. So let’s hope I have similar success in making it here and teaching it to you. You WILL need a scale that is capable of measuring grams, so I apologize if this is outside your realm of access. If it is, you can do some basic math conversions and make it some other way, but it’ll be difficult to do the yeast on any larger increment.

Okay, so the basic ratio is as follows:

100% flour
80% water
2.5% salt
.07% yeast

This breaks down to:

1000 g flour (I use bread flour)
800 g water (room temperature)
25 g salt (kosher or sea–not iodized)
7 g yeast (active dry)

To make your poolish, stir together:
400 g flour
400 g water
3.5 g yeast

Allow it to sit for at least 8, but up to 48 hours (covered)

The salt doesn’t go in until you’re making the final dough because salt can kill yeast, meaning you won’t get any pre-fermentation at all.

After your poolish has partied like a rockstar, it’ll look like this–

Those bubbles? Good things. They mean your yeast is ready to finish the job, and has gotten a damned good head start on the bread-making process.

Now you need to put your poolish in a stand mixer that is fitted with the dough hook attachment. Add the rest of your ingredients in this order:

All of your poolish
3.5 g yeast
400 g water
600 g flour
25 g salt

See how the salt is still separated from the yeast? Now turn your mixer on low speed for a minute to combine the ingredients, then medium speed for an additional few minutes to get your dough smooth and elastic, but not too structured. Your dough will be looser than you’re accustomed to seeing, but don’t be alarmed. This is the right consistency for focaccia, or for ciabatta, or for oven-fried bread. It should be stiffer than a cake batter, but looser than a bread dough.

Now rest your dough, covered, until it doubles in size. A warm-ish, semi-humid environment works best. Cooler environments will make it take a lot longer, and hot environments (over 100 F) can kill the yeast and ruin the dough entirely. Is that what you want? Dead dough? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Once your dough has doubled in size, it’s clear that your dough is getting ideas above its station. The only way to solve this is to oil your hand up and punch it down to size. When it’s been punched down, cover it again and leave it in a semi-warm place to rise once more. You want it to double again.

Now comes the sticky-icky, nasty, messy part. I’m so sorry to foist this responsibility onto your unsuspecting shoulders, but somebody is going to have to shape that sticky mass of dough, and it’s going to have to be you, sister…or brother. This is how you should set yourself up for success in taming your sticky beast–

–Get 2 or 3 standard pie tins
–Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil in each tin
–Oil your hands up like you’re about to…um…well, this is awkward. Oil ’em up really well, and keep a little dish with some extra oil next to you.
–Pull out 1/2 or 1/3 (depending on how many pie tins you’re using and how many loaves you want) of your dough with your oiled hands.
–In a semi-fluid motion, tuck the edges of the dough underneath, over and over, until you have a smooth round of dough in your hands. Immediately slap it down in an oiled pie tin. It should look like this–

–Repeat with your other dough/pie tins
–Rub a small amount of olive oil over the top of each loaf so they’re shiny.
–At this point, for real focaccia, you’ll want to press dimples into each loaf (gently but firmly) with your fingertips. This will create the typical focaccia thickness and appearance. But I like to let them puff up for making sandwiches. Call me a rebel. And maybe I forgot to put the dimples in until after they baked, and this is my last ditch attempt to save my own ass by pretending I set out to make a different bread entirely. You’ll never know, will you.

Wash your hands, wash your face, wash your friends, and preheat your oven to 450 F.

While your oven is preheating, your dough will be spreading out and filling your pie tins a little better. It’s at this point that you can adorn your bread with things. Not heavy things, mind you, but delicious things. Some freshly cracked pepper and sea salt, perhaps. Roasted cloves of garlic and sea salt? Rosemary and sea salt? Olives? The focaccia is your oyster, just don’t go crazy and weigh it down with heavy things, or you’ll have a flat mess.

And for God’s sake, don’t use iodized table salt for any of this. Or really for anything ever, in my humbug opinion.

After your oven beeps to let you know it’s preheated, wait another 10 minutes to make sure it’s good and hot throughout. Then put your pie tins on the middle rack. Now throw a few ice cubes on the floor of your oven and shut the door quickly. This sounds preposterous, I know, but trust me. The ice cubes will sizzle up immediately and provide a tiny bit of steam to help your bread to crust-up nicely and turn golden. Ideally, you’d be using a deck oven, but none of us have those in our homes. After you’ve thrown the ice on the floor, leave the door tightly shut for the next 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, you can check on your bread. You’re going for a rich golden color, almost like fried food. Technically, the action of the olive oil in a hot oven kind if IS frying the outside of your bread, so that makes sense. Delicious sense. Thus the name “Oven-Fried Bread.”

When your bread is golden and glorious, remove it from the oven, turn it out of the tin using a thick kitchen towel to protect your hand, and put it on a rack to cool. Believe me when I tell you this is difficult. It smells like heaven, you’ve been waiting basically all day, and you’re HUNGRY, dammit. Trust me, it’s worth it. If you cut into bread before it’s had a chance to cool a bit, it’ll collapse and you’ll lose all the moisture and also possibly a kitten somewhere will cry. At the very least, there will be a delightful German chef who would disapprove of your actions.

You don’t have to wait until it’s COLD, though. Just until it’s a medium amount of warm. Then cut it up, by all means. Slicing it horizontally will yield you a great bun for a muffaletta sammich. Slicing it into wedges will make a great bread for sopping up tomato sauce. Tearing off great hunks, dipping them into good olive oil, and slapping them directly into your drooling mouth is also acceptable and encouraged. After all, you’ve got extra loaves if you need them later.

This takes all day, sure. But it also gives you great, gaping holes of free time to go out, run errands, play with your dog, take a jog, or start a career in show business. In the end, you’ll have loaves that are beautiful and delicious and perfect for sharing. And if you’re worried that you, too, forgot to put dimples in your loaves. If you’re worried your guests will notice. If you’re worried that they’ll criticize you. Well, just “forget” to wear a bra while you’re serving your bread. Nothing like some free-range jumblies to fix a multitude of sins.

Oh, and the bread kicks ass regardless, just so you know.

11 thoughts on “These Poolish Games”

  1. Like the rest of us, Jewel got her teeth fixed to fit in. Also, please come make this bread while I'm at work today… I'd love to eat some when I get home!

    As a side note to Jewel: Your orthodontist was NOT lying. You DO have to wear your retainer. Forever.

  2. Dude…you're telling me. Chris and I are both in the middle of our SECOND round of orthodontia, since we ignored our retainers when we were teenagers. For me, this luckily meant invisalign. For Chris it meant full-on braces. For both of us it was a significant investment that could have been avoided altogether. Stupidity.

  3. I think it's a bit safer to put an iron skillet on the bottom of the oven, and toss the ice cubes into that- especially if it's a gas oven. There's less chance of drops of water shattering the light and ruining everything.

    Do you have a wild starter? You should. It's even better than poolish.

  4. Whaaaat beeyatch? Of COURSE I have a wild starter. But sometimes I like the subtle tang of a poolish over the overt sourness from my wild starter.

    Also, I have no gas stove. This isn't my fault.

  5. I don't have a gas stove either. I used to, and it breaks my heart how much I miss it. So you should know that you totally had me when you said that the bread was oven fried. See, I can totally handle this because I can't help thinking that it's not FRIED, per se, more like…uh…baked in oil. Which is fine, right? And by fine, I mean delicious looking.

  6. I want to make this. Maybe when I have a whole day that I can devote to myself rather than STUPID STUPID ANATOMY!!! That will be…sometime in the middle of summer…during which I will be moving to New York. Where it will not be way too effing hot…and I can make hot bread and not feel like I just raised my electric bill $15 just for warm bread for the day.

  7. "so that the yeast can get all crunk and start getting old men to buy it cases of Keystone Light, and inviting its friends over and breaking its mom's antiques and generally having a messy, belch-intensive party up in the flour and water."

    Oh my god, you're my new favorite person.

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