I have an irritating habit – it’s irritating to me, I mean – I’m quite sure I have irritating habits that only others find irritating – but this is one that only I would be bothered by. I have a habit of becoming challenged by a question to which an immediate answer is not available, and then to be periodically annoyed by the question, until l become re-energized to find the answer to this challenge. Such an unanswered challenge was my recent quest to find an answer to the question, “How were the real Vietnamese baguettes made during the French occupation of Vietnam?”
You may remember that several months ago I raised that question, and in a partial answer, I began baking some Bahn Mi rolls made with a portion of rice flour in the dough. At the time, I was not impressed with the results, and vowed to continue the experimental bakings to find a more acceptable baguette.
The baguettes of Saigon are legendary and we know that they contained some rice not only because we assume that wheat flour was an expensive commodity, and rice was common and cheap, and so it is likely that they used as much rice as they could in the baguette dough – we also know this because the Vietnamese bakers of the time have told us so. And although I have searched for such a classic French/Vietnamese recipe on the internet, I have not found one. I found plenty of Vietnamese baguette recipes that contain rice flour, and it was one of these that I used for my bakings. But the recipe I used -with 27% rice flour- did not produce a satisfactory baguette – my guess is that the lack of gluten results in a crumb that does not hold together well, and a crust that, although soft, does not have a chewy texture at all. This does not make for a good sandwich experience.
At first I thought this was strange – how could the French bakers in Saigon allow something as poor as this to be made in their bakeries? And how could anything like this become legendary? And the more I thought about it, the more I suspected that perhaps the rice going into the bread was not rice flour, but cooked rice! I knew that cooked rice often found its way into multi grain breads, so cooked rice in bread was not unique. But would that make a difference?
For my most recent bake, I decided to revisit the challenge, and test the cooked rice theory – but of course, I couldn’t just use the same recipe as in my last rice flour baking (nothing like comparing apples and oranges, right?), it’s just not my style. And since everything I’ve baked lately has been sourdough, I adapted the new recipe to a sourdough leavening as well.
The resulting loaves – I made them more like large rolls than baguettes – are perfect for sandwiches, with a soft but chewy crust, and a velvety crumb that did not break up as it had with the rice flour bread. The taste was delightful. As you’ll note, I still used a half cup of rice flour, but my next bake will eliminate the rice flour completely in favor of a full cup of the blended cooked rice – can’t wait to try that.
In the meantime, I’d like to suggest that the following recipe will make a quite satisfactory Bahn Mi baguette. Although I know there are many Bahn Mi shops that are baking their own breads, I’m not sure how many are bothering to use a traditional Vietnamese baguette made with rice, but I’d hope there are some who’d value and honor the tradition enough to bother. But the beauty of baking your own breads is that even if few others are baking a particular type, a home baker can enjoy breads that simply are not obtainable commercially – and how neat is that?
Vietnamese Bahn Mi Baguettes II
- * 1/2 cup mature sourdough starter @ 100% hydration
- * 1/2 cup cooked rice, blended until smooth
- * 1.75 – 2 cups water
- * 3 – 3.5 cups soft white flour (AP OK too)
- * 1/2 cup rice flour
- * 4 Tbs. sugar
- * 2 tsp. salt
The day before:
- * Cook 1/4 cup of leftover cooked rice, mixed with 1/2 cup of water, until the rice is very soft but still soupy – cool.
- * Puree in blender until smooth – set aside.
Prepare the levain by mixing:
- * 1 cup water
- * 1/2 cup cooked and blended rice from above
- * 1/2 cup mature sourdough starter @ 100% hydration
- * 1 cup soft white flour, such as cake or pastry flour preferred – AP flour is OK as well
- * 1/2 cup very fine rice flour (generally, rice flours from Asia are ground finer than are those from the U.S., and a course rice flour will add a grainy feel to the baked product)
Allow the levain to stand on the counter, covered, at room temp for 8-12 hours, or overnight.
The day of baking:
- Using a stand mixer, place the levain from above into the mixer bowl.
- Add 4 Tbs. sugar and 2 tsp. salt.
- Add 2 cups of soft white flour.
- Using the mixer’s dough hook, mix at a slow speed for three to four minutes – the dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl – if it does not, add 1 Tbs. of flour at a time until it does. On the other hand, if the dough seems too dry, add 1 Tbs. of water at a time until the dough feels soft and elastic. Since this is a relatively low hydration dough (62 %), it should not require any additional flour, but it may need some additional water – play it by ear. I think the rice acts quite differently than the wheat flour when hydrated.
- Allow the dough to rest for 10-20 minutes in the bowl, covered.
- Continue to mix with the dough hook for five to seven minutes – give the dough a window-pane test to assure gluten development.
- Remove the dough to a greased bowl, and allow to proof at room temp for one or two hours – when the dough is pushed with a finger and the hole remains indented, remove the dough to a bench to form into loaves or rolls.
- Divide the dough into 4 oz. pieces (for small rolls), or 6-8 oz. pieces (for small baguettes). Allow to rest for 10-15 minutes.
- Take each piece of dough and flatten into a small rectangle (twice as long as wide) – roll into a tight cylinder and roll on the board until it has stretched out by 50% – now, using your two palms, roll the ends of each cylinder into tapering points – flatten each roll a bit and remove each to a greased baking sheet. Baguettes are formed in a similar manner, but the ends are not tapered to a point.
- Cover the baking pans and allow to proof for another hour or two (rising time with sourdough always differs depending on many factors) – the rolls/baguettes should double in size when ready for baking.
- An hour before baking, begin to heat your oven to 400F.
- Once your rolls have risen well, using a lame, sharp knife, or a razor blade (I use a box cutter), make a single cut lengthwise down the roll – a lengthwise cut looks better on a smaller size roll – you may choose to give the larger baguettes the traditional 3-5 cross slashes, depending on how long your baguettes are.
- You may spray your rolls with water before or during early baking, if you choose – the added moisture will add a crispness to the crust, which may, or may not, be preferred – your call.
- Slip the baking pan into the hot oven and allow the rolls/baguettes to bake for 20 minutes, at which point you should test them with an instant read thermometer – I like 205F plus for an internal temp – some go even higher. If your oven tends to have hot spots, as most ovens do, you may do well to turn your pan(s) half way through baking.
- When done, remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack on your counter before removing from the pan.
If you want your rolls to be even more attractive, you may want to sprinkle them with flour, or brush them with warm milk, after they are fully proofed but prior to slashing – but I think they are pretty just as they are with further adornment.