Baking French Bread Down East in Maine
Recently, my friend Erica Holthausen and I were fortunate to grab the last two available seats for an Artisan French Bread class at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School, a small, family run baking school in Lyman, ME. Stone Turtle is an unpretentious, hidden gem that turns out some wonderfully executed and practical lessons on the art of bread baking. (Hidden indeed as the directions had us turn at an old landmark, roadside stand painted with a weathered Moxie logo.) On this brisk fall day, ten participants surrounded the kitchen’s large rectangular table. The group makeup was diverse: three men and seven women ranging in age from late twenty-something to over seventy years.
The owners Michael and Sandy Jubinsky are native New Englanders originally from Lowell, MA. Michael is a retired engineer, and Sandy, a talented artist specializing in painted porcelain. Both have been cooking, baking, studying and writing about food for more than forty years, which shows as they work harmoniously in the Stone Turtle kitchen. Michael leads the class instruction while sharing his passion and skills for producing all forms of bread, the proverbial staff of life. He is an incredibly patient man, capable of teaching everyone from the novice baker to the more experienced professional. He couples this with a great sense of humor and a vast reservoir of knowledge. Sandy wears a name tag that simply says “The Boss,” and is flanked by the couple’s son, John, who keeps the Le Panyol oven fired up and ready. Together they help move Michael along at a comfortable pace.
Before he embarked on making the bread, Michael quickly noted that one must bake at least 2,000 loaves before feeling success. As daunting as that sounded, he further added that even with that behind him or her, a bread baker will continue to refine skills, striving to improve with each subsequent loaf.
As class began, we were each given equal portions of poolish, a pre-ferment originally used by Polish bakers in the nineteenth century and later adapted by French pâtissiers in pastry making. The purpose of the poolish, which Michael made the evening before, is to improve the bread by increasing the acidity, extending the shelf life, and allowing more depth of flavor to develop prior to mixing the final dough. It is, however, not a sourdough starter.
Everything involved in the entire baking exercise was done by hand -no mixers. The dough, surprisingly damp and sticky, coated everyone’s hands and echoed Michael’s mantra of “wetter is better.” Between the rising, resting and shaping, he demonstrated how to make a variety of French breads along with a few Italian breads. For the latter, he used French techniques to make both a rosemary focaccia and a pizza crust, which we later enjoyed for a delicious lunch.
Much like an old French Citroën deux chevaux automobile, the Le Panyol oven (a.k.a. “the Stone Turtle”) is a labor of love. It requires multiple cycles of heating and cooling over several days to gradually raise the temperature to the desired level for baking. Just as we were preparing to bake the bread, John removed the oven coals and said that no additional heat was necessary; the retained heat, stored in twelve inches of ceramic, would be sufficient. Bake times will often vary because no adjustments are possible once the breads go in.
The class participated in every step of the baking process, right down to a rapid, continuous procession of peels (long handled paddles used to place bread in a deep oven) orchestrated by Michael who carefully placed our risen breads in the hot oven. While waiting for our newly conceived children to finish, we sampled a French boule and a boule d’olive that Michael made earlier in the day. If ours turned out half as good, we were going to be in for a treat!
Much of the baking equipment was handmade out of practicality, which enhanced the charm and rustic feel of the whole experience. The paddle we used to gently roll our risen dough onto the peels was constructed of cedar clapboard donned with pantyhose. It performed flawlessly.
One of the great things about this class at Stone Turtle was that all of the ingredients – including those used in the poolish – are readily available to the non-professional. Some of our flour was locally sourced from Maine’s Aroostook County. The recipes provided will work well for the home baker. For those of us without a Le Panyol at home, Michael also demonstrated impressive results using a standard oven. That’s great, but having a Le Panyol in my own backyard would be a nice Mother’s Day gift. (Hint, hint other Palaverer.)
After cleaning up and saying our goodbyes, Erica and I — along with our beautiful bâtards — returned home. The breads were exceptional. So memorable was this experience that I promptly signed up the other Palaverer for the Artisan Italian class next month. Our Christmas baking should prove interesting.
Thanks to the team at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School (Michael, Sandy, and John) for the wonderfully rewarding, educational, and delicious November day in Maine. I have only 1,998 more loaves to go!
Whatever your baking ability, the Le Panyol at Stone Turtle is quite an experience. Finding a little bit of France Down East in Maine made it even better.
-Laura Ciampa, Palaverer Too
Photo Credits: The Two Palaverers