March 2, 2011
I attended the Omnivore Food Festival in Deauville last week, a three-day event during which chefs from France and way beyond hop on stage and do live demos. This was the sixth edition and I've only missed one since it started, but this year was extra special for me because I'd been asked to host the pastry chefs' demos in the sucré auditorium.
I had a blast meeting such talented individuals, from Bubo's Carles Mampel to Noma's Rosio Sanchez by way of the Ritz's Sébastien Serveau, and accompanying them through their demo so the audience got the most out of it.
One of the (many) perks of this job was that I got to hang out backstage in the salé auditorium when I didn't have demos to present myself. And this is where I was when Sven Chartier, the young chef behind the über-hyped Paris restaurant Saturne*, started his presentation.
I was chatting with friends while keeping an eye on the monitor, and saw that Chartier was showing something he called la poulette des amis, a young hen from the Sarthe that he had cooked in a bread crust, nestled in Christophe Vasseur's now-legendary pain des amis (bread of friends).
Chartier sliced the dark-brown crust open to reveal the chicken inside, and immediately two thoughts popped in my head: 1- this is like salt-crusted chicken, only 100% edible, and 2- someone's got to get that chicken-juiced crust back in here.
That someone was me (I am nothing if not determined, so I walked out on stage after the demo and asked Chartier's commis if there was a chance he might donate the crust in the name of culinary research) and our lucky little group happily tore samples from it.
I returned home with the idea firmly lodged in the lobe of my brain I allocate to such vital matters. We happened to have friends over for dinner a few nights later, and the menu planning took a nanosecond: I was going to cook a bread-crusted chicken of my own, using a sourdough crust I'd make with my trusted starter Philémon (you guys have met, right?).
The overall method I used was merged from the ones I've already described for salt-crusted chicken (including the subcutaneous parsley) and pain au levain (with the addition of dried herbs for flavor). I found that the bread dough was easier to work with than the salt crust dough, because it is more elastic and therefore more docile.
I baked the chicken for an hour and a half, and the bread crust was nicely browned, but not too dark, when I sliced it open for carving. The skin of the chicken was less golden than with the salt crust, which I suspect is more porous, but plenty of juices had collected inside, and the chicken was just as moist and flavorful.
The very bottom of the bread crust, right where the chicken was sitting, wasn't crisp enough for serving, but I cut the rest of the bread into big chunks to eat with the chicken, a wonderful treat that the salt crust method can't quite compete with. And over the next couple of days, the leftovers of that crust were reheated in the oven and served with a grated carrot salad, and then alongside the stock I made with the chicken carcass.
* Where I still haven't been because too much buzz kinda kills it for me.
Chicken in a Bread Crust
For the bread crust:
- 540 grams (19 ounces) bread flour (I used French T80 flour)
- 12 grams (0.4 ounces) salt
- 3 tablespoons dried thyme or other dried herb(s)
- 180 grams (6 1/3 ounces) ripe 100%-hydration sourdough starter (see this post for more details)
- 370 grams (13 ounces) water
[For a total ~1.1 kilos / ~2 lbs 7 oz of herbed bread dough.]
For the chicken:
- one chicken, organic and/or from a source you trust, about 2 kilos (4.4 pounds)
- 1 medium bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife blade
Serves 4 to 5.
Start preparing the bread crust at least 7 hours in advance (or in the morning if serving the chicken for dinner). Put the flour, salt, thyme, starter and water in a large mixing bowl and stir with a wooden spoon or a dough whisk to form a shaggy dough. Add a little water if necessary for all the flour to be absorbed.
Cover with a kitchen towel and let rest for 5 minutes. Using a flexible dough scraper, stretch and fold the dough 8 to 10 times as shown in this video. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes, then stretch and fold the dough another 8 to 10 times.
Cover and let rest for 1 hour. Stretch and fold the dough 6 to 8 times. Repeat every hour for the next 3 hours. The dough will become smoother and smoother each time; these stretching and folding steps replace the actual kneading.
Lightly oil a baking dish big enough to hold the chicken comfortably. Set aside. Combine the chopped parsley with a teaspoon of salt. Set aside.
Place the chicken on a work surface, on its back, with the neck side facing you. Slip your hand under the skin, starting at the base of the neck, and work gently to get your hand further in, lifting the skin from the flesh over each breast, and down over each thigh, without tearing the skin. Once the skin is loosened, slip in the salted chopped parsley, pushing it underneath the skin to cover the breasts and the thighs as evenly as you can.
Sprinkle a few pinches of salt inside the cavity of the chicken, and add in the garlic. Using a piece of chicken string, truss the chicken as demonstrated in Peter Hertzmann's Preparing for roasting video at minute 2:30. Rub a little more salt onto the chicken and set aside.
Scrape the bread dough out of the bowl and onto your well-floured work surface. Sprinkle flour over the ball of dough, and roll it out into a circle of even thickness throughout, and large enough to wrap the chicken in it (I shoot for a diameter of about 50 cm or 20").
Place the chicken in the middle of the circle and fold opposite flaps of the dough over the chicken to wrap it entirely, moistening the edges of the flaps so they'll adhere.
Lift the whole thing carefully but with determination, and transfer it to the prepared baking dish. Place in the fridge until ready to bake -- you can leave it in for a few hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the fridge an hour before baking.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F) with a cast iron pan on the floor of the oven (alternatively, a rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack will do). Insert the dish in the oven, then quickly pour 60 ml (1/3 cup) boiling water into the cast iron pan (work carefully and wear oven mitts so as not to burn yourself) to create steam in the oven.
Bake the chicken for 1 1/2 hours.
Remove the dish from the oven, and slice the crust open all around the chicken with a bread knife, trying not to slice into the chicken itself (as you can see in the picture above, I didn't quite manage to avoid that).
Lift the chicken from the open crust and transfer it to a cutting board for carving. Serve with the cooking juices, the cut-up bread crust, and a green salad.