Vietnamese Bánh Mì Gà

About half a year ago, when I was first looking into baking bread more seriously, I happened to read about Saigon baguettes: a French bread made with half rice flour and half wheat flour. It sounded really interesting, so when I found a recipe, I tried it out. I had a lot of difficulty with it, and ended up with only a somewhat-edible loaf of bread. Later, when I found out there is a sandwich made with the baguette, I decided I'd have to give it another try.

So, the instructions and recipes that follow are of very questionable authenticity. I've never had a banh mi in a restaurant, my only experience with Vietnamese food at all is from one restaurant in town (though I do like to make my "faux pho" from time to time) and I'm not all that confident about the authenticity of the recipes I've used to make this. So be warned.

From what I've read, banh mi is an amazing Vietnamese-French fusion sandwich on a rice/wheat baguette with a thin, crispy crust and soft, airy inside. The most common fillings are pork: either breaded, in meatballs, pate, or bologna lunchmeat, though chicken is also fairly normal, and there are a variety of other meats people use as well. (In fact, the one pictured was made after I ran out of chicken, so I put an egg on it. That may be very unorthodox.) It's topped with Asian mayonnaise, Sriracha sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, pickled daikon radish and carrot, cucumber, hot chili peppers, and cilantro, to make a deliciously messy sandwich that's sweet and hot and salty and wonderful. So naturally, I wanted in on that, but the closest restaurant selling them appears to be about three hours away in Chicago.

Most recipes I found online for the sandwiches suggest using a normal French-style baguette. That would probably be very good, but the rice flour really gives the bread a different texture and flavour, and besides, if you're going to substitute a different bread, then you might as well use red radishes for the daikon and Tabasco for the Sriracha sauce, and then what would your sandwich be?

The first time I tried to make the bread, I used the wrong kind of flour, which was my first mistake. I got Arrowhead Mills rice flour because I'd liked their buckwheat flour so much better than the one from Bob's Red Mill. But Arrowhead's rice flour is very coarsely ground and is not at all appropriate for this recipe. Bob's has a more finely ground rice flour that might work, but I decided to play it safe this time and got a one pound bag of Thai rice flour from an Asian supermarket.

My second problem was that I wasn't used to working with such a sticky dough and added too much flour to compensate and turn it into something more like the baguette recipes I was used to. It was good fresh out of the oven, but quickly became too dense and hard to eat. This time, I treated the dough more like a ciabatta or pain à l'ancienne and it came out much better. I'm still not entirely happy with it though. I think I could have baked it longer for a darker, crispier crust and maybe done a nicer job with the shaping. I had expected larger air holes on the inside too, from all the descriptions I'd read of its light, airy interior, but comparing mine to photos I've seen, it doesn't look that far off. Still, I'd love to try to find another recipe for this bread, to compare the two, and maybe try to make something better. I just think I might have to know Vietnamese to manage to find another recipe...

Banh Mi
Authentic Vietnamese Cooking : Food from a Family Table
By Corinne Trang

1 package active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rice flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted

To prepare: Place the yeast, 1 cup lukewarm water, and sugar in the bowl of a mixer with a dough hook. Sift together the all-purpose flour, rice flour and salt in a separate bowl.

Starting the mixer at the lowest speed, add the butter to the yeast, then gradually add the dry ingredients and beat until well combined, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and continue beating the dough until it is smooth and comes away from the sides of the mixing bowl easily. Put the dough on a lightly floured surface, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise (double in volume), 45 minutes to 1 hour.

[Foppish baker notes: Unless there's something magical about an electric mixer that can make watery dough right, you'll need to mix up an extra cup or so of 1/2 rice flour and 1/2 wheat flour. I mixed mine by hand for 30 minutes, and nothing much happened. I imagine it was good for developing the gluten, but I needed to add a bit more flour before I had a dough that stuck to the bottom of the bowl, but came away from the sides, like ciabatta dough.]

Punch down the dough and knead it for about 2 minutes. Separate into 2 portions and shape each into an 8-inch-long baguette. (The dough may be sticky and hard to handle at this point. Do not overwork it, just gently shape it.) Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise a second time, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, place a baking stone on a rack set in the middle of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

[Foppish baker notes: I turned the dough onto a heavily floured surface, floured the top and kneaded it a bit before shaping it into long strips, like for pain à l'ancienne. Baking it at a higher temperature, like 450-500 might be a good idea.]

With a sharp knife blade or a clean razor blade, make 1 slit lengthwise or three diagonal slits along the top of each baguette. With the help of a wooden pastry paddle, carefully slide 2 baguettes onto the baking stone and bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes. To test for doneness, tap the underside of a loaf. If it sounds hollow and the exterior is crisp, then it is done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before handling.

[Foppish baker notes: Mine ended up awfully lumpy and flat-looking. I'm not sure how to improve this, I'm just complaining. I had expected to make a sandwich on each loaf of the bread, but they ended up large enough that half a loaf made a very filling sandwich. So this recipe makes enough for four sandwiches.]

To make the sandwiches:

Pickled carrot and daikon
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cup distilled white vinegar
3 julienned carrots
1/2 small julienned daikon radish
Kosher salt

Marinate in refrigerator a couple hours. Also, slice and stripe one hothouse/English cucumber and slice one onion.

Chicken (The Gà in Bánh Mì Gà)
3-4 chicken breasts, sliced into strips
juice of 2 limes
3 T brown sugar
1/4 c vinegar
2 t Sriracha sauce
1 T dried lemon grass
3 cloves garlic, diced

Marinate in refrigerator a couple hours, then broil until chicken is done (10 mins?).

Sandwich Making

Slice the (hopefully slightly cooled) loaves of bread in half and cover the bottom half liberally with Japanese mayonnaise. Bake in a 400*F oven for about five minutes to toast the bread. Put Sriracha sauce, to taste, on mayonnaise, then add broiled chicken, cucumbers, a dash of soy sauce, onions, chili pepper, pickled carrots and daikon, black pepper, fresh cilantro, and the top half of the bread.