If you’ve had a chance to try making pain à l’ancienne this week, you’ve undoubtedly noticed one thing: this dough is very wet. It sticks to everything including hands, bowls, implements, the table, you name it. Thus you must be prepared to spread plenty of extra flour around. You must also be prepared for imperfect (a.k.a. “rustic”) loaves. Why is the dough so wet? Simply because wetness (or high hydration in the super-fly, keepin’-it-real parlance of professional bakery) translates into big interior holes, or open crumb.
Handling a dough this wet can be tricky for anyone new to it. The consolation is that pain à l’ancienne bakes up beautifully regardless of its final shape, be that roundish, squarish, oblong, or something like the state od Rhode Island. Now me, I’m not a big fan of the “torpedo” shape that the author of the recipe calls for. What I do is push the dough into a rough rectangle, cut it into three strips with a wetted bench scraper, and lay the strips out across the length of an upturned, parchment-covered cookie sheet. The end result is three skinny loaves of a girth somewhere between a thick breadstick and a baguette. But do whatever you want. Small rounds, bun-sized ovals, you really can’t go wrong. But be advised that whatever shape you decide upon, your loaf will ultimately come out somewhat flat and ciabatta-like (perfect for sandwiches).
As far as handling, the way to manage pain à l’ancienne dough is to avoid actually grasping it. With well-floured hands, treat it like the proverbial hot potato and never let stay in contact with your fingers too long. Thinking about it, the gestures that I make when I shape it are similar to tossing a salad by hand: furtive little lifting, pushing and pinching motions that don’t so much “shape” the loaf as corral it into form. You’ll be amazed at how much extra flour you’re going to need, but don’t worry. It’s that residual flour that gives you that much-coveted powdery, Old-World artisan bread look.