I seem to be a bit sandwich obsessed at the minute and whilst I'm keeping that theme going I'm moving from the US for this one.
Last year I travelled the length of Vietnam and one of the foods that really stuck out was the Vietnamese baguette, known locally as banh mi. The combination of light, crispy bread, various pork products, sweet and crunchy pickled veg and fresh herbs and sauces was a taste and texture explosion in every bite. At the time I thought they needed some UK exposure but didn't expect them to blow up in such a big way in such a short time. Less than a year after my return they seem to be the taste of the moment in London. The first I knew of was the lovely Banh Mi 11 on Broadway Market (in my adopted Hackney) but this has been followed by numerous others and with more to follow, including one I'm particularly looking forward to due to their use of the Hoi An style pointy baguette - City Caphe
This is all well and good for those in London but what about everyone elsewhere? Or for those like me where eating isn't enough and a quest for knowledge of the makings of things overwhelms? Hopefully this will help.
Much has been written online about the banh mi baguette (strictly just banh mi), how to achieve the light inside and crisp, thin exterior. Rice flour is a common ingredient - a sworn requirement for some - whereas others manage without it. I wonder myself how much the drippingly humid heat of Vietnam plays a part. Moisture definitely has a pivotal role in crust development whilst baking and the difference between the air over here and over there is like chalk and cheese. Recipes online were thin on the ground though and one common one, which uses equal rice and wheat flour, just seems like it shouldn't work (rice flour lacks the all important gluten and 50% of the mix is a huge amount to go gluten free) and there's plenty of comments from those who have attempted it saying it doesn't, the rice flour making it heavier rather than the desired lighter crumb.
Reading can only get you so far though so I set about experimenting myself, keeping all other things constant (maybe not the best for different flours but as good a start as any) and just altering what the 200gr of flour consisted of. My base recipe was:
140gr water (70% using the % method)
1 ts dried yeast
1/2 ts salt
1/2 ts sugar
and for the flour I used 100% strong, 50/50 strong/plain (I read somewhere that Oriental flours are softer than our bread flour) and 25/37.5/37.5 rice/strong/plain. They were all kneaded using the Richard Bertinet recommended pick up and slap down method, risen for an hour then shaped into 2 baguettes per mix and given another 45 mins or so till doubled. In the oven they got 20-25 minutes with a good spraying of water into the oven at the start for that all important steam.
Even before we'd reached this stage though something didn't seem right with the rice flour containing dough. Kneading away I could tell it was woefully lacking in gluten, whilst the pure wheat flour recipes developed that familiar stretch and spring as I worked them the dough in this case was a lot less resilient, losing the occasional lump as I swung the dough onto the work surface. It came together in the end, and rose very well, but was a bit fragile.
After baking there was a clear winner and there was no rice flour in sight. The 100% strong white had the nicest, most golden crust and the softest crumb. Whilst the rice flour dough had risen fine prior to the oven it didn't seem to rise any more in the oven leaving it small and heavy. I ate it though and there was a definite thin crunch to the crust not present in the pure wheat flour doughs, enough to make me want to experiment further. On the day though 100% strong won and that's where the filling went. Some point in the future I will try some different combinations, first off 80/20 strong/rice to try and get a rise from the gluten with the thin crispy crust the rice flour is hinting at (have tried this now, see Further Experiments and Thoughts note at end).
For the filling I decided to play on the braised caramel pork belly dish that I'd had many times before both in England and Vietnam. Rather than braising pork belly in fish sauce and sugar though I mixed palm sugar and fish sauce together and rubbed it on some pork shoulder which I then roasted. The sweet, salty crust and juicy roast meat was a winner.
For the all important pickled vegetables I used this recipe and was more than pleased with the result - crunchy yet tender and with a pleasant balance of sour and sweet.
The banh mi were completed with chili sauce (Thai sirachi as I had no Vietnamese), mayonaisse, cucumber and coriander. Even if I say so myself they worked a treat, sending me straight back to the streets of Hoi An, probably helped by the recent warm sun and the greenhouse effect of the three huge east facing windows in my living room.
Banh Mi with Caramel Roast Pork
Individual baguettes, either bake your own above (I'd go for pure strong flour) or buy some
Caramel Roast pork, see below
Pickled Carrot and Daikon
Cucumber, seeded and cut into batons
Green Chilies, thinly sliced
Split the baguettes, I've heard some Vietnamese pull some of the bread out the middle just leaving a crisp shell (and more room to put filling in).
Spread each half with mayonnaise and then fill with pickled veg, cucumber spears, coriander, chilies and roast pork - this is a sandwich so you can put as much or as little of each thing as you want. Add chili sauce to taste.
Caramel Roast Pork
1kg pork shoulder
1 TB palm sugar
3 TB fish sauce
Take the skin off the shoulder and save for something else. Butterfly the meat to leave a slab about 5cm thick.
Mix the palm sugar and fish sauce and rub all over the meat. Leave to marinate for a bit if you have the time.
Roast at 160C for 2 hours. You can brown under a grill at the end if you want, it may be nicely browned already though.
Further Experiments and Thoughts
Since this day I have tried 80/20 strong and rice flour. Again there was hints of a thin crisp crust but again the rice flour made the crumb denser and the oven spring was limited leaving a thin baguette. I'm thinking rice flour soaks up more water so I'm going to try again upping the water a bit. I'm also thinking rice flour may take longer to hydrate so I'm going to mix the rice flour and the water and leave it for a couple of hours before carrying on with the rest of the recipe. Anything I do will be reported back to the blog. In the mean time it's 100% strong flour for my banh mi.