i've been pouring over these these two bread books for the past few weeks. one is danish chef claus meyer's baking book. claus meyer is a passionate advocate of nordic cooking, using locally-sourced ingredients and there has recently been a 6-part series of his nordic cooking programs on television. i am utterly smitten by his passion and enthusiasm as well as his knowledge of the traditions and ingredients in our part of the world. the other is one of the wonderful river cottage handbooks. i've got this one on bread, the one on mushrooms and the one on preserves. i can highly recommend the books as very useful, accessible, well-written and inspiring (and no, i have no vested interest in saying that).
both books cover the ins and outs of everything from all of the baking accessories you need (i've got to get my hands on some of those proving baskets like the one pictured above) to the different aspects of the grains and how they behave in their various ways of being ground. i found myself hanging on every word and generally being fascinated by the whole chemistry of baking. wishing now that i'd paid a bit more attention instead of reading dostoevsky during science class in high school. and both books sold me on the notion of making my own sourdough starter.
so, about two weeks ago, i did exactly that. for the first stage, you take 150g of good strong wholemeal flour (rye, spelt, wheat are all fine) and 250ml of water and beat them up well with a whisk in a container with a lid. i used a large tupperware container. it would be ideal and a bit more aesthetically-pleasing to have a crock of some sort, but i felt all of the ones i have were a bit large for the task, so tupperware it was. then you leave it sit on the counter somewhere out of the way and you begin to check on it. the natural yeast that's all around us will begin to work its magic (perhaps within a few hours, but for sure within a couple of days) and you'll start to see bubbles coming up in the mixture. once you see those little bubbles, it's time to feed the starter, which you do by adding 150g of flour and 250ml of water (that's approximately a cup of each for those using american measurements). you don't have to be exact about this, just use roughly equal portions of flour and water.
you continue this feeding for a good ten days. after the first two rounds, you should discard half of your dough when you do the feeding (or it will become a VERY large batch rather quickly), which is again 150g flour/250ml water, well whisked in, because you want to get as much air (and thus bacteria) into the mix as possible. the whole process is quite fascinating and daniel stevens (who wrote the river cottage book) is not wrong when he says that the starter will become almost like a friend - which indeed it will become if you keep it going endlessly like many bakers do (daniel knew bakers who had had their starter for 30 years!). you'll constantly be checking on it to see how the fermentation is coming along. it will develop different smells along way. mine currently smells like apples. but it could smell vinegary or malty or even like sour milk. get to know yours.
after about ten days, it's ready to use. both books have a variety of sourdough bread recipes and claus meyer's book actually advocates using the sourdough starter together with a pinch of regular yeast in any bread you make. i have yet to try that.
it requires a bit more planning ahead to make sourdough, as it requires more proving time, but it's totally worth it. i used the river cottage sourdough recipe, which is as follows:
before going to bed, mix (using the dough hook of your mixer) well:
650 ml warm water
500 grams strong white bread flour
and a good ladleful of sourdough starter
remember to feed your starter after you take some, otherwise you'll deplete your supply.
the next morning, pour the bubbly, rather soupy mixture back into the mixer and add:
600 grams strong flour
25 grams of salt
that may sound like a lot of salt, but bread needs the salt (tho' it does interfere a bit with the rising) to get the right crispy crust. claus meyer is a big advocate of plenty of salt in the bread. mix this in your mixer with the dough hook - once it's combined, turn it up on high and let the mixer knead it for 10-12 minutes. or knead it by hand if that's what you like (i'm lazy, so i let the mixer do it). plus, this dough is rather soft and sticky, so it's difficult to knead by hand.
for mine, i used a mixture of a couple of flours, but you can use a regular high quality wheat flour, or mix in a bit of spelt or whatever you'd like. my starter itself has been subject to my flour whims in its feedings, so it has had snacks of good wholewheat flour, some of the nordic grain sorts - emmer, ølandshvede and svejderug along the way, so it is very wholegrain. but you can be as purist as you like, or use what's available in your area. whatever you choose, the starter will have the personality you give it.
next, the bread requires four provings (according to the book). i actually only gave mine two, because i had to go away during the day. and let's face it, four is rather intimidating.
the bread is baked at a very high temperature - 250°C/480°F when you first put it in the oven. there are a lot of instructions about spraying it with water and about putting a pan of water in the oven, but i'll admit i didn't do that (it was too overwhelming, but i will try it another time, especially after i sat down and read how that makes a good crusty crust). you turn down to 200°C/390°F once it puffs up (which it will do rather alarmingly) and the crust starts to brown. the recipe actually should make 2-3 loaves, but i made one giant loaf. mine baked for about 40-45 minutes, but it may take longer (i always think my oven is fast). you will know it's done by knocking on it. it just sounds done (vague of me, i realize, but try it, you'll see what i mean). we ate it, fresh from the oven, with a fresh batch of hummus and i utterly neglected to photograph it.
|this book can be yours!|
and to encourage you in your own baking adventures, we're going to give away a copy of the river cottage bread book right here (i somehow ended up with two - undoubtedly in a confluence of bad memory and amazon order button madness). just leave a comment about your most memorable bread experience and we'll draw a lucky winner on friday, may 6.