Pain au Maïs

Pain au maïs is turning out to be more of a challenge than I expected. It started when I was in France for Thanksgiving. An American friend and I were trying to put together a dinner and needed several kinds of bread for my mother's stuffing recipe. We had a white bread and a wheat bread, and went down to a good bakery around the corner from my friend's apartment. We asked what they had in the way of whole grain breads and were given some pain au maïs. A lot of it went into the stuffing, but we each tried a few slices plain and it was fantastically delicious.

It had a thick, hard crust like a baguette, with little bumps from the corn flour. The crumb was fairly even, with lots of small holes, and it was soft, like an enriched bread, but had that buttery feel of a lean bread. (Oh, I wish I'd known then what I know now about baking bread so it would be easier to try to recreate that.) The bread was a little bit sweet and had a strong corn flavour. That bakery had a lot of breads they rotated from day to day, and I never saw pain au maïs available anywhere else. (So it's probably been built into something even more wonderful in my mind because of it.)

I tried twice making something like it without a recipe. The first time, I soaked cornmeal in water for a few hours, hoping that would soften it enough to let its flavour spread through the bread, instead of leaving crunchy bits of cornmeal in an otherwise normal white bread. I put one egg in the batter and used 1/2 cup of cornmeal with, I think, three cups of white flour, a packet of yeast, and enough water to make a dough. This bread came out all right, remarkably similar to this recipe I just tried, but it was too bland.

The second time, I thought I'd try making it a lean bread with an overnight rise in the refrigerator. I started by grinding 3/4 cup cornmeal into something resembling corn flour in the blender. I think I still used about 3 cups of flour, a packet of yeast, and enough water to make a dough. But I could tell it was no good when I took it out of the refrigerator the next morning. It was heavy and dense and gross, but I baked it anyway to see if the flavour was any closer. It did taste more strongly of corn than my earlier attempt, but it still wasn't there.

So recently I decided I'd look up a recipe and try making that. I found a French one that was intended for rolls, but it looked decently similar to what I'd had. I bought corn flour from the bulk bins at Whole Foods, figuring that would get me closer to what I was trying for. I translated the recipe and adjusted the amounts a little bit so it would be easier for American measurements. (Possibly a bad idea? Though it's worked out all right in other recipes...)

While I was making it I remembered happily that it is possible to decide you'd like to bake bread, then have a loaf fresh out of the oven and ready to eat a few hours later. I've gotten too used to sourdough and poolish and breads that take two or three days, at least, to make. But when I tried this bread I decided I'd go running back to my long, slow rises because it really does make a better bread.

This recipe is... not like what I had in France. It tastes good, but it's very dry, somehow. Still a bit of butter and jam covers that up nicely and it's quite edible. (Unlike my second attempt, which was a rock...) But I will have to keep working before I have a pain au maïs I'm happy with. I do have some more ideas from trying this one though. The incredible amount of yeast they used might be something to try. I think the corn flour is fairly heavy and dense, so it needs a lot of yeast. Though I suspect my second attempt failed from having too much yeast, which then died. So, if I want a long, slow rise, I need less. (Right?) Both this and my first attempt had eggs, and I suspect they help make the bread lighter as well. I wonder if the milk helps the flavour too. A little butter might even be worth a try. I think I might try using a poolish when I try it next.

Addendum: This bread is much better in both flavour and texture on the second day.

Pain au maïs
[Original French Recipe]

Yeast - 3 packets (20g) (3 packets is 21g)
Salt - 2 teaspoons
Sugar - 1 tablespoon
Eggs - 2
Flour - 4 cups (500g) (I used bread flour)
Corn flour - 1 cup (100g) (According to an online kitchen measurement converter, 100g = .8 cup corn flour)
Milk (room temperature) - 1 cup (1/4 litre)
Water (room temperature) - 1/2 cup

1. Sift the flours together to get rid of any lumps. The corn flour lumps up a lot. Stir in the salt and sugar.

2. Form a well and pour the yeast and water inside. Stir to dissolve the yeast, also incorporating a bit (about 1T.) of flour from the walls. Let sit about ten minutes, until yeast mixture is bubbly.

3. Crack the eggs into the well and add about half the milk.

4. Using one hand, stir the batter, adding more milk as necessary, until all the flour is moistened and the dough forms a ball. It will be somewhat sticky.

5. Knead until smooth and gluten develops, about 15 minutes by hand.

6. Cover with plastic wrap for the first rise. It should double in size and will take about 1~2 hours.

7. Degas and knead briefly, then shape on a baking sheet covered with parchment and a sprinkling of semolina. (The recipe suggests knot rolls (Is there a better word for that?) but I made a boule.) Preheat the oven to 425*F (210*C). Let the dough rise a second time while the oven preheats. I let mine rise about 25 minutes. Slashing the top might be a good idea, because mine cracked.

8. Bake 25 minutes, or until dark golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow. Let cool, slice, and eat (with lots of butter or other toppings!)