Tag Archives: sourdough

Sourdough September

Sourdough, plus Lux

Although I’ve still not got a kitchen, and can’t bake – seven weeks and counting – doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about baking. I think about baking a lot. I wish I could just knock up a batch of cookies, or put make some bread. I have, at least, been tending my sourdough starter, which is quietly biding its time at the back of the fridge, not entirely dormant, but not particularly active.

Sadly, I still won’t have a kitchen, or an oven, until late October, so I won’t be able to do any naturally leavened loaves during Sourdough September. This is the annual event organised by the Real Bread Campaign, a series of “local events and activities to help share sourdough secrets and demystify the delicious delights of the oldest way of raising a loaf.”

Not only is making your own bread not that difficult,  creating your own natural leaven, or sourdough culture, to use instead of commercial yeast, isn’t either. Read all about it here.

Oh, and that’s Lux with my sourdough. I notice she didn’t wipe her feet when she came in from the building site, which isn’t very hygienic. I’ll have a word with her about that before she heads off to the spa (okay, cattery) while me and Fran get out of the way of the builders for a week, firstly by walking the South Downs Way from Lewes to Winchester.

 

 

 

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Sourdough pizza and Hastings Brewery’s No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale

Sourdough pizza with Hastings Brewery No 6 Pale Ale

Even though we ate tonnes on Saturday night, accompanied by various local beers and wines, I was making bread dough on Tuesday evening and thought, heck, why not make another pizza? One of the justifications was that on Saturday night one batch we did was slightly over-baked and the other slightly under-baked, so I wanted to keep on experimenting with our oven to try and get it right.

Anyone who’s made real pizza in a domestic oven will know it can be slightly challenging, largely because you simply can’t get the heat. My oven goes up to about 250C (480F) but a wood-fired pizza oven can get up to 450C (840F), enabling flash baking. You can improve things in a domestic oven by using a baking stone. Stones are excellent as you heat them in the oven first, so when the pizza is slid onto them, they’re already hot and help bake the dough through, quickly, as well as crisping up the base.

But I’ve not got one at the moment.

Currently, I’m just using a metal baking sheet, which goes into the oven cold. It’s not ideal, as, depending on the temperature variables in your oven, you can get a done, or potentially burnt, top, before the base is full baked. Even though I’m pleased with this recipe, the base wasn’t baked to perfection. That’s the challenge – for me and for you, as your oven will be different again.

Hastings Brewery No 6. With cat

Hopping forward
The other enjoyable factor about this pizza dinner – aside from being able to eat it outside on a warm English summer evening, 20C, no mosquitoes – was a great beer. I mentioned in my previous post I don’t think the light mild beer I was drinking was a good food pairing. This time round I chose a considerably more hoppy beer, and it worked well.

This was a Handmade No 6 Pale Ale bottled beer from Hastings Brewery, bought from the excellent Trafalgar Wines in Brighton, a booze shop with an excellent selection of beers. Apparently Hastings Brewery beers are their second-best selling now, after beers from The Kernel in London.

Hastings Brewery is a new discovery for me. I’m slowly working my way through all the local breweries. This one is 23 miles away from my home in Lewes. It started with founders Pete Mason and Brett Ross inspired “whilst litter picking after the Hastings Beer & Music Festival in July 2010.” Pete’s dad Andy got on board and by 2011 they’d bought “a larger – but still small – brewery”.

They’re an interesting outfit as not only do they do everything by hand on a small scale, with brews of 800 litres, they’re also make entirely vegan products. A lot of drinkers may not realise beer generally isn’t very vegetarian or vegan, but it’s often filtered with isinglass finings, which are fish bladders. Pete Mason is a vegan, as is their sales manager. Their beers are unfiltered. For some, this is appealing as filtering, arguably, can remove some of the flavour and mouthfeel.

The brewery’s label design and branding is great too. Their labels – all featuring a lion with fine mane and tongue sticking out1 – certainly stood out on the shelf at Trafalgar Wines.

Handmade

The 4.8% ABV beer, with its slightly unwieldy full name of ‘Hastings Handmade No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale (Columbus)’, is very much a British take on a US craft beer. It’s defined by its use of Columbus, an American hop variety with a high alpha acid (around 15%), making it suitable for assertive bittering, 48 IBUs apparently. I suspect they’ve also used it for late-hopping (adding later in the boil, so it the oils aren’t totally broken down) or even dry hopping (adding during the conditioning stage so the oils remain largely intact) as the beer is highly aromatic: citrus, ginger, passion fruit, honey. The taste, while defined by massive bitterness, is also honeyed, with a salty, minerally aftertaste that verges on soapiness. [See below – actually they used a hopback.]

This beer really reminded us of our travels in the US, and while I have vague feelings of disloyalty to more traditional, malty, subtly hopped British beer styles when I drink something like this, I also love how British brewers are playing around with US styles. I love all the international cross-pollination of tastes and styles. The beer also went really well with our pizza, which I topped with mozzarella, thinly sliced pancetta from Beals Farm Charcuterie and a pecorino romano, for that added salty goodness.

I was hoping to add some asparagus but while I still saw plenty on the farmers’ markets a few days ago, guess what? Waitrose – nominally the less unethical British supermarket – only had asparagus from Peru! Southafeckingmerica!!! It’s asparagus season here – in England – right now, the end of the season sure, but still now. Now. In England. I’ve seen signs outside farms as I’ve cycled around Sussex, mere miles from that branch of Waitrose. Supermarket food economics is bonkers. Not to mention environmentally appalling.

Baked pizza

Sourdough pizza recipe
This makes one large-ish pizza, about 30cm (12 inch), but could cut up and manipulated differently. If you roll it flat, you’ll get a much more Roman-style pizza. If you open out the centre more and leave a wider, fatter edge, you’ll get a more Neapolitan-style pizza. The latter is called a cornicione and is the speciality of Michael Hanson at The Hearth in Lewes. Lewes, depressingly, has about four industrial chain pizza places; I’d say my pizza is better than all of theirs, easily, though still second-best in Lewes, after The Hearth.

This is a naturally leavened dough, so you want to make it the day before, to give it time to do a nice long fermentation.

250g strong white bread flour (or a mixture of strong, high protein flour and plain, all-purpose flour)
180g water
50g sourdough starter (100% hydration. I used a rye-based one, but wheat-based would be fine too)
15g olive oil (a good glug basically, QB)
5g salt

1. Whisk together the sourdough starter and water. It doesn’t matter if the water is cool, as it’s a long fermentation it doesn’t really need that boost of using body-temperature water. Try and use water that’s not too chlorinated or fluorinated. I filter my tap water with a Brita and the sourdough starter seems to prefer it.
2. Add the flour and salt and stir together well.
3. Add the olive oil and keep blending until well-combined.
4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface lightly greased with more olive oil and give it a short knead. It is a relatively wet dough. If you find it too sloppy, add a little more flour – but not too much or you’ll make a nasty dry dough.2
5. Put the dough back in the bowl, cleaned and oiled, and let it rest for 15 minutes before giving it another quick knead, stretching it and folding it over. Repeat this twice more, then put the dough back in the bowl, again, cleaned and oiled.
6. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a shower cap, and put it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly for about 24 hours.
7. Take the dough out of the fridge about an hour before you want to use it.
8. Form it into a ball on a floured work surface. Cover.
9. When you want to bake, preheat your oven to the highest setting.
10. Gently stretch out the dough. Don’t be too rough, or you’ll damage the structure that’d been developing during the fermentation period. How you open it up depends on what shape of pizza you’re making (see above).
11. Once you have opened up the dough to almost the desired shaped, gently transfer it to an oiled baking sheet, hanging it over your forearm and taking care not to poke your fingers through it.
12. Cover with your desired toppings. I did a pizza rossa – with tomato sauce – along with the abovementioned cheese and pancetta. Here’s the pizza before it went into the oven:

Unbaked pizza.
13. Bake in your preheated oven until it’s done. Yes, I know that’s vague, but it could be 10 minutes, it could be 25, with the oven turned down a little lower to make sure the middle of the base bakes and the top doesn’t char (too much).
14. Enjoy. Preferably al fresco with a quality, hoppy local beer.

 

Info
Hastings Brewery, 12 Moorhurst Road, Hastings TN38 9NB
hastingsbrewery.co.uk | info@hastingsbrewery.co.uk | 01424 572051

 

Trafalgar Wines, 23 Trafalgar St, Brighton BN1 4EQ
01273 683325

 

Footnotes
1 Some local ignorance – is the lion a Hastings thing? Maybe, as there are lions – or one lion and two half-lion/half-boat things – on the town’s crest.
2 The mixture is really 275g flour and 205g water, as the 50g of leaven at 100% hydration is 25g water, 25g flour. So this is a 74.5% hydration dough in bakers’ percentages. I’m using Stoates organic strong white bread flour; I find it quite absorbent, possibly as it’s stoneground and contains more bran. If you’re using a whiter, less branny flour that’s less absorbent, and

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Golspie loaf

Dan Lepard Golspie loaf

Over past several years, probably nearly a decade, my favourite bread book has been Dan Lepard’s ‘The Handmade Loaf’. A lot of the pics from this old Flickr set of mine are the results of recipes from the book. I had a lot of fun trying them, and the book was a real inspiration for me as I got more serious about baking. I thought I’d tried all the recipes, but looking through the book again the other day I found a few I’d missed. The Golspie loaf is one of them.

Dan explains it gets its name from a watermill in Suterhland, northern Scotland, which produces its own stoneground flours and meals. Before wheat became readily available, more common grains used for breadmaking in northern Britain were barley and oats. Traditionally, the round, flat bannock is made from oats or barley. The Golspie loaf is another disc-shaped loaf, with Dan’s recipe based on a barley or rye leaven (sourdough starter) and strong wholemeal flour. I’ve still got some of the Surrey wholewheat flour I used here, while my leaven has been mostly fed with rye lately. Dan’s recipe also used a little extra yeast, but mine’s wholly sourdough. I also added some oatmeal to the dough, as any addition of oats seems to result in a lovely most dough.

Dan Lepard Golspie loaf torn apart

350g leaven – mine was based on rye, but then fed on strong wholewheat flour and was 100% hydration (that is, made with equal proportions of water and flour)
210g water
6g salt
400g strong wholewheat flour
20g oatmeal (I used medium coarse)
Extra oatmeal to coat

1. Put the flour, 20g oatmeal and salt in a large bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the leaven and water.
3. Pour the gloopy leaven and water mix into the flour and bring together a dough.
4. Cover and rest for 10 minutes, then give it a brief knead.
5. Cover and rest for 10 minutes, then give it another brief knead. Repeat this once or twice more.
6. Cover and leave the dough to prove. I did this in a cool cupboard over about 4 hours. You want it to prove up until it’s almost doubled in size. You can speed it up a bit in a warmer place, but a slower prove allows the flavour to develop more, and the yeast to work on the wheat proteins.
7. Lightly oil a 20cm springform cake tin and spinkle the inside with oatmeal.

Dough and tin
8. Form the dough into a ball, then flatten this into a disc.

In tin, before final prove
9. Put the disc of dough in the tin, and spread it to fill with your knuckles.
10. Sprinkle the top with further oatmeal.
11. Leave to prove up again. Again, how long this takes will depend on the warmth of the spot, and also the liveliness of your leaven.
12. Preheat oven to 220C (200C fan).

Before bake
13. When the dough is nicely risen, and reinflates slowly when prodded, cut two slices thrpough it in a cross shape, all the way to the bottom. (A metal scraper or cutter like this is very handy.)
14. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down by 20 degrees and bake for another 25 minutes. Baking times vary depending on your oven too but you want it nicely browned. If you have a fierce oven, check after about 30 minutes.
15. Turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely.

After bake

This is a real companionable bread – the cuts mean you can tear it easily into portions for sharing. Fran’s taken a quarter to work today with some of her salt beef, a project that’s been floating around in brine the past few weeks but was cooked up on Easter Sunday.

Salt beef sarnie

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Le Creuset-baked sourdough

Sourdough baked in Le Creset, straight out of the oven

This is a technique I’ve been wanting to try for ages. Since last year, in fact, when still living in Rome. There, I encountered the blog of another ex-pat baking enthusiast, Krumkaker. She made several of her loaves in a casserole dish. It’s also a technique demonstrated by the ever-enthusiastic Vincent Talleu here.

I didn’t have my Le Creuset, or similar, with me while living in Rome, but now I’m home, I’ve found it. (Though we’ve lost a load of other baking kit in our double move. Particularly sad is the loss of an Eiffel Tower-shaped cake mould Fran bought in Paris with our dearly missed late friend Sara.)

Anyway. I’m not sure baking in a cast iron casserole, or Dutch oven, or Le Creuset, is a Scandinavian technique. It’s likely something that just evolved before Europeans had ovens, and would bake in pots, initially earthenware.

Cracks

On the road
The only other time I baked in a Dutch oven was in New Zealand, 1989, when I was on the road with my old friend Stephen McGrath, his Clydesdale horses and an elaborate caravan of wagons and carts. I made an enormous, heavy-duty loaf in a massive Dutch oven, baking it in the embers of our campfire.

Me driving wagon through Westport, New Zealand, 1989

The logic of baking in a casserole dish is that the cast iron is not only nice and hot – you preheat it – it also traps the moisture of the dough, effectively steaming the bread as it bakes.

Steam is how you get a crisp crust on bread, and can be difficult to create in a domestic oven. Professional baking ovens have steam injectors, but domestic techniques using misting sprays or trays of water are never quite as good. I can’t remember the qualities of my campfire loaf all those years ago (25!!!), but certainly this loaf has a lovely crust – though it wasn’t the crispest I’ve managed over the years in a domestic oven.

It also has a very satisfying shape, and the dish constrains any dough flow if I hadn’t moulded the ball well enough. (I hate it when I make a round free-form loaf, forming the dough into a ball, then it flows out into a discuss shape when it take it out of the proving basket; shaping nice tight balls can be surprisingly tricky.)

My leaven / sourdough starter, healthy again

Rude health
This loaf is also my first sourdough for a while. Although I’ve been making most of my own bread since we got back to England at Christmas, I’ve been neglecting my leaven somewhat.

Now about five years old, my leaven is well-travelled and much changed. It was born in London, then moved to Sussex, then it moved to Italy with us. There, it was fed on many and varied Italian flours – wheat, rye and various things referred to by the much misunderstood term farro.

Then it moved back to Britain. And I abandoned it for a few months. While we visited friends and family in the US and NZ, the sourdough lodged with my mother. Who’s a great cook, but not a bread-maker – she’s doesn’t make bread with easy yeast, let alone have any experience with sourdough.

So the past few months I’ve been nursing it back to health. I fed it rye, and local stoneground wheat flour, and filtered water. Finally I introduced some other leaven, from third generation baker Michael Hanson of The Hearth in Lewes. This could be seen as cheating, but I see it more like a kind of marriage. The yeasts and bacteria in my (puny) leaven mixing with those in Michael’s leaven. And after weeks of TLC, it’s finally back in rude health.

Mad science
As with much of my bread-making, this is kinda experimental, not a recipe as such.

I made a sponge with:
300g water
80g wholewheat leaven (at 100% hydration)
200g strong white bread flour
All mixed together, and left, covered with a shower cap – another technique I learned from Krumkaker.

I left it all day, for about seven hours, while I went off and worked in The Hearth.

In the evening, I made up a dough, with a further:
100g white bread flour
150g wholemeal wheat flour
10g salt.

I gave it a short knead, formed a ball, then let it rest for about 10 minutes. I then gave it another short knead, another 10 minute rest, and repeated this a few more times. I then left it an hour, at room temp (about 18C). I then gave it a fold then put it back in the bowl, covered it, and left it in the fridge overnight (4C).

Dough

In the morning, I gave it another fold, resting it at room temp for another hour, then formed a ball, rested it 10 minutes, tightened up the ball, then put it in a basked and gave it a final prove in the airing cupboard (about 24C).

Final prove

I then preheated the oven to 250C, with the Le Creuset inside. After about 20 minutes, with the oven at heat, I turned the well-floured dough out of the proving basket and dropped it into the hot dish – taking care not to roast my knuckles. I didn’t slash the top –  because I wanted to see how it cracked. Or because I forgot.

Before baking

The lid went back on and I baked it for about 25 minutes at 220C. I then took off the lid, dropped the temperature again to 200C, and baked for another 20 minutes or so.

Cut

The results were good. The crust is more chewy than crisp, the crumb soft and moist. We had some for dinner, when I did wood pigeon breasts with a pancetta, thyme and juniper berry red wine sauce. We didn’t eat all the meat, so Fran used the leftovers for a sandwich for work, with a smear of wild garlic sauce. I bet no one else had that posh flavour combo sarnie* for their work lunch today.

Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Any US readers, “sarnie” is British English – possibly even English English – slang for sandwich.

 

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Black beer bread

Black beer bread

Readers of this blog may have already spotted that we’re ‘Game of Thrones’ fans. ‘Game of Thrones’ is not only the name of HBO’s excellent TV series, it’s also the title of the first book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice cycle of books and it made a cameo appearance in this post, where we were lolling around in the park drinking Birra del Borgo’s Rubus, reading and enjoying the sun.

I can’t remember what hyperlinked amble took me there, but Inn At The Crossroads is the officially recognised blog for recipes based on foods found in A Song of Fire and Ice. Being a baker, my attention was immediately grabbed by their bread recipes. Specifically black bread – something that’s mentioned in the books as common fare of the people of Winterfell and the North.

Here is Inn At The Crossroads’ first Black bread, and here is their Black bread redux, aka Black beer bread. I wanted to try something similar, but not using commercial yeast – as this didn’t seem to fit into the whole quasi-Medieval vibe of Martin’s world. Instead, I wanted to use beer barm, a byproduct of fermentation.

My first experiment with a real barm bread was pretty successful, though I didn’t use any actual beer or dark flours to make it, so it wasn’t really a black bread or a black beer bread. This, however, is.

Again, I used Mulino Marino Pan di Sempre, a stoneground organic white flour that is made with a blend of Triticum aestivum (that is, common bread wheat), Triticum spelta (spelt wheat) and Triticum monococcum (einkorn wheat), but I also added some wholewheat flour.

I made a leaven with the same barm as before, feeding it up with flour over a few days, then I made up a dough, using beer as the only other liquid, not water.

Now, I mentioned that Dan Lepard’s ‘The Handmade Loaf’ has a recipe he calls “Barm bread”, though he makes it without actual barm, just beer and a leaven. He also heats the beer, killing the yeasts, but retaining the flavour. I wanted to retain the live yeasts from a bottle-conditioned beer, so didn’t heat it.

Flour, dark ale and barm leaven for my Winterfell black bread

The beer I used was Birrificio Math’s La 27, a 4.8% dark beer from the brewery near Florence. They call it a stout, but stout, traditionally, meant strong, and more recently has come to be associated with more full-bodied creamy porters. It’s neither.

The La 27 has a solid fruity smell: specifically black berries like blackberries (!), elderberries and blackcurrants, with a touch of smokiness and a little chocolate, but taste-wise it’s dull, a little charcoal, but not much more depth of flavour. The body was thin and watery, and over-carbonated. The aftertaste was oddly bitter. It was black though, or black enough for a black beer bread.

So anyway, here’s the recipe. If you try it, don’t be afraid to adjust the quantities, as I was very much experimenting when I made it.

I made my beer barm leaven with barm, flour and some cooking water from farro grain; I’d say it was about 80% hydration, effectively. If you can’t get hold of a beer barm, a normal leaven/sourdough starter will suffice, though it won’t be quite as fun.

For the beer, use a non-pasteurised, non-filtered, bottle-conditioned dark ale, stout or porter (not Guinness).

280g beer barm leaven
400g flour (a mixture of white and wholegrain)
10g salt
250g dark ale, stout or porter

1. Combine the salt and flours.
2. Combine the leaven and beer, stirring well.

Winterfell black bread
3. Pour the liquidy gloop into the flour.
4. Bring together the dough. It’ll be pretty sticky. Which is good, albeit tricky to handle. Don’t agonise.
Winterfell black bread

5. Form a ball with the dough, put it in a bowl or plastic container, cover with plastic or a lid, then put in the fridge.
6. Leave in the fridge for around 14 hours.

Winterfell black bread
7. Take the dough out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature (around 20C ideally).

Winterfell black bread
8. Form a ball, then put it – smooth-side down – in a bowl or proving basket lined with a floured cloth.

Winterfell black bread
9. Prove again for about 5-8 hours more. This will depend on the temperature of your room, the liveliness of the yeasts, etc. You want to leave it until it’s doubled in size and is soft to the touch, nicely aerated.

Winterfell black bread, final prove
10. Preheat your oven to 240C.
11. Upturn the ball onto a baking sheet (so the smooth-side is up), slash, then bake for 20 minutes.

Black bread
12. Turn down the oven to 200C and bake for a further 20 minutes, or until the bread is done. This can be tricky to judge, but you want it to feel lighter, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
13. Cool on a wire rack.

Black bread

Now, the finished loaf looked rather pleasing, and had a lovely smell of chocolate, a scent that you get with certain stouts. Oddly, this smell wasn’t strong with the beer itself, but it’s come through with the baking.

Winterfell black bread

Taste-wise, it’s certainly pretty rustic but is oddly bitter-sweet. I’m not a chemist, but I wonder if the bitterness is related to the alcohod.

I’m sure it would have served very nicely for the hungry Brothers of the Night’s Watch, freezing their behinds off on the Wall. We, on the other hand, enjoyed it for breakfast on a mild late-summer Roman morning slathered with honey. Then for lunch with a lovely crunchy, sharp medium aged pecorino.

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Real beer barm bread

Beer barm bread

Once Upon A Time
Once upon a time, breweries and bakeries lived side-by-side harmoniously. Brewers merrily went about their noble work, mashing, sparging, fermenting. One blessed by-product of the process was a foam that frothily formed on top of the fermenting liquor. The dusty baker from next door would welcome consignments of this malty foam – barm – and use its natural yeastiness to leaven his dough.

And so it went for long ages.

Until some learned men in the late 18th and 19th centuries improved humankind’s understanding of bacteria and yeasts. By the late 19th century, yeast specifically cultivated for bread-making had become commercially available in block, then in dry, granulated form. And slowly, sadly, the close bond between breweries and bakeries faded away.

This idea of bread being made with brewery by-products has intrigued me for ages, but not having had a ready supply of barm, I’ve never actually tried it before.

A Dan Lepard beer bread

Beer breads
Dan Lepard in ‘The Handmade Loafʼ does a loaf he calls “Barm bread”, but it’s made using a bottle conditioned beer, that is then heated. This seems counter-intuitive, as it kills the yeasts in the beer, but apparently it’s to cook off some of the alcohol, which retards the action of any yeast in the mix. Lepard was effectively using the beer as a flavouring, and then re-introducing yeasts, I believe; so however lovely the results were, it wasn’t a genuine barm bread. (One of my attempts using his method a few years ago is picture above.)

My recent enjoyment of Game of Thrones and the Song of Fire and Ice novels, the source for his great HBO TV series, lead me to the Inn At The Crossroads. This inspired blog features involves real-world interpretations of the fantasy world foods mentioned by George RR Martin in his books, and it got me thinking again about pre-industrial yeast bread-making.

Westeros’ finest
Specifically, I was checking out The Inn At The Crossroads’ bread recipes. They have a few for Martin’s black bread, with the second version made using dark ale, stout or porter. Okay, thought I, that looks fun. But I had one criticism. Surely in Martin’s quasi-Medieval world, they wouldn’t have had “1 packet yeast”; bread would surely have been made with the barm method.

I made a comment along these lines, and one of the site’s creators, Chelsea Monroe-Cassel replied, saying “I agree that this would be the very best way to make this bread!” She also said, “I’ve made several trub breads, with great success.” I’d not heard of trub bread too, but this one is made using the sediment from the fermenter.

Beer barm

My project slightly moved away from the black bread theme, though, as initially I just wanted to make a bread with barm, and with flour with older grain – ie arguably more medieval – varieties.

I bought some Mulino Marino Pan di Sempre, a stoneground organic flour that is made with a blend of Triticum aestivum (that is, common bread wheat), Triticum spelta (spelt wheat) and Triticum monococcum (einkorn wheat).

My friend Michele Sensidoni, a brewer, kindly furnished me with a bottle of barm. It wasn’t very prepossessing stuff: gloopy, brown and malty, separating slightly, but it was exciting to finally get my hands on the stuff.

Beer barm and Mulino Marino Pan di Sempre flour

So:
100g barm
100g flour
Mixed and left overnight. My kitchen was at around 23C. The next day this was clearly alive, and reasonably vigorous. Here’s the before and after shots:

Beer barm leaven Beer barm leaven

I formed a dough with:
200g barm leaven (ie, all of the above)
500g flour
10g salt
300g water

Adjust the water if necessary; you want a nice moist dough.

Beer barm bread, dough

I then put all this in a container and left it in the fridge for 24 hours.

I then took it out of the fridge, and let it come back to RT (again, around 23C).

Beer barm bread dough, before final prove

After a few hours, I formed a ball, and put it in a proving basket lined with a floured cloth.

I let it prove again at RT for around 9 hours.

Beer barm bread dough, proved

I preheated the oven to 230C.

Beer barm bread, pre-bake

When the dough was nice and swollen and soft, I baked it for 20 minutes, then turned down the oven to 210C and baked for another 20 minutes.

Beer barm bread, fresh from oven

The results are very pleasing. It’s got a chewy crust, a reasonably open crumb and a taste that’s subtly sour. Yay.

Crumb CU

Oh, and for etymology geeks (like me), the British English word barmy, meaning a bit bonkers, crazy, comes from barm. As a barm is the foamy scum that results from fermentation, someone who is barmy is a bit bubbly, excitable, unpredictable and possibly even frothing at the mouth. Don’t worry though, making and eating this bread won’t have that effect on you. [insert suitable smiley here to compensate for lame attempt at humour]

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Biga 1: Advice from the maestro at Il Vecchio Forno, Pescasseroli

Il Vecchio Forno, Pescasseroli, Abruzzo

After our wonderful hiking in Abruzzo, we had a delicious dinner at Plistia restaurant in Pescasseroli. As I asked a lot of questions, particularly about the bread, the host, Cicitto, offered to take me to the bakery where his brother-in-law (sibling of Cicitto’s chef wife, Laura) is the master baker. Aside from how just plain lovely this small town dynamic seems to someone like me, who grew up in Britain at a time where traditional food trade was being killed off by supermarkets, it was also just a wonderful opportunity. Cicitto was offering to get me some lievito madre (natural leaven starter), but the jaunt actually turned into a handy lesson.

Il Vecchio Forno (The Old Bakery, or The Old Oven),  is located in the centre of Pescasseroli, in a row of old stone buildings. Its shop sign is barely legible, there’s no window showing the wares and a ribbon curtain covers the doorway, so it’d be easy to walk past – were it not for the intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread emerging. We entered down a side entrance, and wandered into the bake-house at the back.

My old teachers at the NBS in London have conditioned me well, as I felt self-conscious about my street clothes, but hygiene legislation clearly wasn’t exactly a priority as there were at least a couple of lit cigarettes in there. Boggling! Still, the loaves being turned out from the large deck oven looked great, as did some plump pizza bianca (an olive-oily flat-ish bread that looks more like what we’d call focaccia in the UK, though actually that’s Ligurian focaccia; in Rome, the name focaccia is used for a flatter, crisp and crunchy bread).

The maestro kindly gave us half an hour of his time, first introducing us to his mother. His lievito madre – mother yeast or leaven – that is. What surprised me about this was how much it just resembled a dough, unlike the more liquid, ie higher hydration, sourdough cultures I’d previously learned about and been using. The madre is about 50 per cent hydration, where recently I’ve been keeping my leaven at around 100 per cent.

Bread at Il Vecchio Forno, Pescasseroli, Abruzzo

We chatted about the issues I’d been having with my naturally leavened breads, and he did some diagnosis. I was fermenting the dough for too long he said, resulting in too sour a flavour – though arguably, a sour sourdough is more in line with certain northern European breads than Italian naturally leavened breads, where the flavours are generally milder, nutty but not sour.

His biggest piece of advice to me, as a home baker making bread once a week, was actually to not worry about using a lievito madre at all. So no sample of their venerable madre for me. Instead, he recommended using a biga.

A biga is an Italian pre-ferment, not unlike a British sponge or French poolish. Unlike those pre-ferments, however, it’s much lower hydration – again, like his madre, more lively dough than bubbling gloop. The maestro went on to give me a recipe for a biga. He recommended using a 00 (ie a fine grade) flour, then got a bit technical for me – saying to use a flour with a P/L grade of 0.55 and a W…. To be honest, with my bad Italian, and terrible handwriting, my note-taking abilities failed me. My notes either say a W of 240 or 400.

But just what are P/L and W? Well, some research  tells me the former is an elasticity rating, the latter the forza della farina (“strength, force of the flour”). Italian Wikipedia calls it the fattore di panificabilità, which you could translate as the “breadability of the flour”.

Although this is in Italian, and fairly technical, it includes a good table. Which I’ve borrowed, as the blogger himself seems to have borrowed it from Professor Franco Antoniazzi of the University of Parma.

W P/L Proteine Utilizzo
90/130 0,4/0,5 9/10,5 Biscotti ad impasto diretto
130/200 0,4/0,5 10/11 Grissini, Crackers
170/200 0,45 10,5/11,5 Pane comune, Ciabatte, impasto diretto, pancarré, pizze, focacce, fette biscottate
220/240 0,45/0,5 12/12,5 Baguettes, pane comune con impasto diretto, maggiolini, ciabatte a impasto diretto e biga di 5/6 ore
300/310 0,55 13 Pane lavorato, pasticceria lievitata con biga di 15 ore e impasto diretto
340/400 0,55/0,6 13,5/15 Pane soffiato, pandoro, panettone, lievitati a lunga fermentazione, pasticceria lievitata con biga oltre le 15 ore, pane per Hamburgher

 

Basically, it says that the higher the W, generally the higher the P/L, and the higher the protein. To translate that into familiar products, a flour with a lower W and P/L (used for biscuits/cookies etc) is akin to a plain or all-purpose flour, while a flour with a higher W and P/L (used for enriched breads with long fermentations like panettone) is akin to a strong white bread flour. So really not that technical after all. Ahem.

Phew.

Not that domestically purchased packs of flour generally include this grading information, but it’s good to know. All part of my baking education.

So anyway, armed with this knowledge, straight from the maestro a cool old bakery in pleasant little Italian mountain town, I embarked on my first biga experiments… Coming soon!

Infodump:
Il Vecchio Forno, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele III 20, 67032 Pescasseroli, Abruzzo

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The natural leaven, or sourdough starter

What is a leaven?
A leaven is simply the agent that causes a bread or other baked item to rise. It can be a chemical agent like baking powder, or it can be a type of yeast, which is encouraged to fart out carbon dioxide to fill your dough with pockets of gas – the holes in the crumb.

The yeasts (products, not species) most commonly used in bread-making are the powdered, instant or easy-blend yeast, the granular active dried yeast (ADY) aka dried active yeast, and fresh yeast, compressed bakers’ yeast, which is known as lievito di birra (beer yeast) here in Italy, a reminder of the relationship between baking and brewing. On this blog, however, I also talk a lot about natural leavens, which I often just refer to as leavens.

Healthy leaven

Yeast, bacteria and a long, strange symbiosis
A natural leaven is also known as sourdough, or lievito naturale or madre (mother) here in Italy (where it’s generally a much lower hydration), or a levain (if you prefer to use a French term to sound extra sophisticated).

The natural leaven is a culture containing both yeast and bacteria strains. So while bakers’ yeast is the strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a natural leaven will contain a colony of various strains of wild yeasts and lactobacilli. The latter is a remarkable genus of bacteria that humanity has had a relationship with for millennia. Lactobacilli play a part in the production of many fundamental consumable delights, such as beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, cocoa and, of course, bread.

It’s a fascinating symbiotic relationship, and one I enjoyed exploring while living on a smallholding in New Zealand years ago, making some crazy cheeses. And who’d have thunk chocolate involved fermentation? Well, it does: the pulp and seeds of the harvested cocoa pods are fermented before drying. Gotta love Theobroma cacao – that is “Cocoa: food of the gods” in Greek.

Anyway, I digress. (As usual.)

When humanity first started making leavened bread, it was thanks to lactobacilli and wild yeasts. In a bread natural leaven, the lactobacilli and yeasts live alongside one another in a sludgy slurry of flour and water, the starter. This was the chief way of making leavened bread from around 1500BC (or earlier) until the Middle Ages, when bakers starting using beer barm, the froth on the fermenting brew.

In the 19th century, when the likes of Louis Pasteur were not only overhauling our understanding of disease but also revolutionising the production of fermented foods, Saccharomyces cerevisiae was finally identified and became, effectively, a crop: brewers’ yeast.

When you mix yeasts with flour, the sugars in the cereal grains (notably maltose) provide them with food. The result of this feeding is lactic and other acids; the by-product is the carbon dioxide. These acids are what can give sourdoughs a pronounced, even tart flavour. Rye flour gives an especially sharp flavoured bread, but some wheat-based sourdoughs can be as mild as breads made with bakers’ yeast.

Healthy leaven

How to create a leaven culture
The easiest way to start a leaven may well be to buy a good book, like Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. This gives a great account of how it’s done with plenty of lovely pics. Or you could read on, for a somewhat less professional lesson.

If you’re using a good quality flour, one where the character of the grain hasn’t been brutalised too much by industrial processing, it may well contain have suitable wild yeast strains already. The yeasts are also on and in your body, and even in the atmosphere. Some people collect them by leaving a jar of flour and water outside but if you live in a polluted city you might want to control the process a little more carefully.

You can do this by putting a handful of raisins and a few teaspoons of live yogurt in a mixture of equal proportions of water and flour. Another baker here recommends rhubard. While Sandor Ellix Katz says “organic plums, grapes, or berries.”1 The fruit will (hopefully) have just the right yeasts on their skin, the yogurt will introduce the lactobacilli. Put the jar, covered with a cloth or with the lid on loosely, in a warm place.

Over the following few days, feed more flour and water to the leaven, stirring it well. To keep things at a reasonable domestic scale, I tend to feed mine around 20g each of flour and water, morning and night. Equal proportions of water and flour mean you have a “100 per cent hydration” leaven2. Lepard suggests increasing the proportion of flour slightly to slow down the fermentation.

It should start to bubble – not like a fizzy drink of course, but you’ll see gas in the sludge and perhaps some foaminess. The smell will become slightly alcoholic too. If your leaven is nice and active and bubbly, it’s happy – so strain out the raisins, their work is done. You can now use some for baking. (Instead of straining out the raisins at this point, you can just soak them overnight at the start and use the liquid. Watch the video here on Viva La Foccacia. It’s in Italian, but even if you don’t understand, the process is clear.)

If you just keep feeding the leaven, without removing any to use, it can become unhealthy, with too much ethanol (another yeast by-product) in the mix. If this happens, simply take a small amount, and, in a fresh jar, start feeding it again.

Feeding the leaven

Your pet slurry
When you have a natural leaven, you have to think of it almost like a pet: it’s a living thing that needs care, needs feeding. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to maintain. If I’m not baking much, or not making sourdoughs, I leave my jar of the leaven in the fridge for weeks, even months occasionally. This retards the fermentation process, as the culture prefers a temperature of 25-35C, not the 4C or so of a fridge.

After a while, the leaven will divide into a grey, putty-like goop, with a watery liquid on top. It’s not dead though, just a bit unhappy. To revive it, you can take a spoonful of the goop, put it in a clean jar and start feeding it again, as described above.

If you change the flour, the yeast strains may well change, and your bread may well taste different, but to me that’s all part of the fun. My leaven is about four years old now, had moved house three times and even moved from Britain to Italy. During this time, it’s been fed on white wheat flour, wholewheat flour, durum wheat flour, emmer flour, spelt flour and rye flour.

For a while I had two parallel cultures, one white wheat, one rye, but it didn’t really seem necessary. If you plan ahead, you can simply take some leaven and feed it with a different flour, creating another strain. This may take around a week of regular feeding.

Be nice to your pet slurry and it could last you a lifetime. Or several lifetimes. There are stories of prospectors in the American gold rush who carried their sourdoughs, which may well have originated in Europe, across North America. I can well believe this as, years ago, I knew an Austrian guy in New Zealand who’d transported his culture around the world in the form of dried flakes, which he rehydrated when he wanted to bake. (He was basically smuggling. Introducing food, vegetable matter and organisms to the Antipodes is a serious no-no these days as they have major problems with foreign species. Don’t do it kids!)

Anyway, some of the US immigrant natural leaven cultures may well still be used today in the thriving sourdough bakery scene of the West Coast US. Certainly some cultures still in use date to the mid-19th century. Gotta love that symbiosis.

Footnotes
1 Katz is a respected US fermentation expert. Something of a guru in fact, who treats his HIV with fermented foods. His book Wild Fermentation includes a recipe for Basic Sourdough Starter (page 95), which says this about the inclusion of fruit: “One effective technique for speeding up the introduction of wild yeasts into your sourdough is to drop a little unwashed whole fruit into it. Often on grapes, plums, and berries you can actually see the chalky film of the yeast (‘the bloom’) that is drawn to their sweetness. These and other fruits with edible skins… are great for getting sourdoughs bubbling. Use organic fruit for this. Who knows what antimicrobial compounds could lurk on the skins of the fruits of chemical agriculture?”

2 Bakers’ percentages are based on the amount of liquid (usually, but not always, water) as a proportion, a percentate of the flour in the recipe. There’s more info here. Leaven percentages are considered in the same way as dough percentages.

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Pane di San Martino

In the autumn of 2011, I noticed bags of a yellow-ish powder on a stall in the farmers’ market in the Ex-Mattatoio in Testaccio, Rome. It was farina di castagna – chestnut flour. That is, flour made from the dried and milled nuts of Castanea sativa, the sweet chestnut tree.

At the time, I experimented with it. A friend commented that there is in fact a traditional Italian bread made with chestnut flour, called pane di San Martino, or St Martin’s bread. The feast day of St Martin is 11 November, just around the time the year’s chestnut flour becomes available.

Anyway, I mentioned this bread to a teacher who I was doing a (food-focussed) conversation class with. She dug out a recipe. Well, she clearly Googled a recipe, as a quick Google myself soon found her source, which is here (in Italian).

After having gone through all that, I then completely failed to try the recipe. A year went by, autumn returned – and so too did the chestnuts, and chestnut flour. So last week I bought a new pack, and determined to revisit the pane di San Martino recipe.

Firstly, however, I had to translate it.

It talked in vague terms: “Prendere mezzo mestolo di farina di castagne e mezzo mestolo di farina di frumento…”, that is “Take half a ladle of chestnut flour and half a ladle of wheat flour…” But which ladle? I’m not a fan of the cup measure in recipes – especially as a US and an Australian cup, say, are different sizes. But what about an Italian ladle? I had two in my kitchen, one medium-small, one medium-large. Was either suitable? I plumped for using the medium-large one, and weighing the flours in grams. (If you’re interesting in scaling up recipes, using grams and kilos makes things a lot easier, in part as the maths are more manageable when you’re working with percentages and a measures based around factors of ten. Ounces smounces.)

Anyway, I translated and converted the recipe, but it still wasn’t quite right in terms of the liquid/dry quantities, so I also revised it while making the dough. Indeed, all flours have different absorbency, so you will have to have a feel for dough when you’re adding mixing the water and flours. This time, I used an organic, stoneground farro bianco – white spelt – flour from the renowned Marino Mulino. If you use a wholewheat flour it will require a more water than a white flour.

So. Pane di San Martino. My teacher gave me some notes that said this bread is found from Emilia-Romagna in north Italy to Salento, in Puglia, the heel. I’ve never seen it in Rome though. In fact, I’ll come clean and say I’ve never seen it anywhere, in the crumby flesh. So although my version is based on an Italian recipe, my version has no claim to authenticity. Which might upset an Italian baker, but shouldn’t be a problem if you stumble upon this recipe from other climes.

The recipe uses both a leaven (sourdough culture) and fresh yeast. This is a technique used by one of my favourite bakers, Dan Lepard, though it might upset some purists. OK, purists, that’s two warnings now.

Make a sponge with:
50g chestnut flour
50g of wheat or spelt flour
12g fresh yeast
50g wheat or spelt leaven/sourdough culture (100% hydration – that is, made with 50% water, 50% flour)
180g tepid water

Cover and leave to ferment for around two hours.

Make a dough with:
The pre-ferment
350g wheat or spelt flour
250g chestnut flour
300g water. Add more if the dough feels too tight.
20g olive oil
12g salt

Combine with a spoon or spatula. You want a moist dough. Don’t be afraid to add more water. When it’s a good consistency, knead to combine.

Cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Add:
180g walnuts and knead gently to combine.

Cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

As the original recipe didn’t involve first and second proving periods, nor does this version. (I think I may work on this recipe though, and adjust the proving. Watch this space.)

Weigh the dough and divide in two. Form two balls, then leave these to prove in baskets or bowls lined with flour clothes.

Leave to rest for around two hours in a warm place away from draughts. Timing will vary depending on the temperature of where your prove the dough.

Preheat the oven to 220C.

Line a baking sheet with parchment. (I’m not using a stone at the moment, just a fierce domestic gas oven.)

When the dough feels springy and alive, almost jelly-like, you’re ready to bake.
Gently upturn the proving baskets/bowls onto the baking sheet.
Make cuts in the top – you can make slashes how you feel, as long as you use a sharp blade and don’t drag at the dough. (Slashes in a loaf used to be the owner’s signature when people used communal village bread ovens.)

Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for a further 20 minutes.

You want the loaf to have a nice colour, and sound hollow when you knock on the bottom. (This isn’t an exact science either but if it sounds hollow, that’s some indication the dough isn’t still soggy and doughy inside, instead it’s baked and dry.)

Leave to cool on a wire rack.

The resulting bread is sweet, almost cake-like, and pleasant for breakfast or afternoon tea, and makes good toast when it’s aged past its initial softness.

Addedum
The great travel writer Eric Newby had a strong connection to Italy – he hid in the Italian mountains during WWII, as described in his wonderful Love and War in the Apennines, and he and his wife – who he met during the war – returned there many times, eventually buying a house in the mountains in 1967. It was called I Castagni, “The Chestnuts”; on the theme of said foodstuff, in A Small Place in Italy he writes “This room extended the whole height of the building and had originally been constructed for the purpose of drying chestnuts. They were laid out and dried over a fire that had a chimney which extended up to the height of the roof. When they were dry they were ground up into a pale, brownish flour and used to make a rather sickly, sweetish sort of bread called castagnaccia which, until long after the last war, was a staple food in many parts of mountain Italy.”

Later on, he writes more about the importance of chestnut trees for “the principle necessities of life”, from building materials to food, specifically castagnaccia, “what had been a stabple food that most old contadini [peasants] now wanted to forget they had ever eaten, because of the memories it brought back of long years of poverty.” Interestingly, the suffix -accio / -accia often indicates a perjorative, so castagnaccia could be translated – very loosely – as “yucky chestnut bread”.

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Couronne experiments

I’m loving the ring shaped loaf at the moment. It’s also called a couronne apparently, though I don’t know much about the real thing from France. I did this one summer 2010:

Couronne Aug 2010

Annoyingly, I didn’t make a record of it at the time and I can’t remember where I got the recipe.

Recently, however, I learned this version, which was referred to as a “French crown”. This is scaled for a 1kg loaf:
536g Flour (100%)
311g Water (58%)
5g Fresh yeast (1%)
5g Sugar (1%)
11g Salt (1.9%)
134g White leaven (25%)

It used a 2-4 hour fermentation time, and created a nice plump, white version. It also uses a French white flour – apparently, to recreate this softer flour in the UK, we can do a blend of strong white and plain flours.

I want to develop a version that uses more natural leaven (or sourdough starter), a longer fermenation and isn’t 100% white flour. I’ve also been experimenting with overnight proving in the fridge.

Here’s what I’ve been using.

Sponge:
170g strong white flour
100g rye flour
310g water
200g white leaven (mine’s currently made with 50/50 water/flour)
[I’ve also been adding a little yeast – 1g ADY or easyblend, or 2g fresh; hey sourdough purists, I’m experimenting!]

I’ve been leaving this sponge for around 9 to 16 hours, then making up a dough by adding:
100g strong white flour
170g plain flour
11g salt

I’ve been kneading for around 10 mins, then leaving it half an hour, and giving it a quick knead. I’ve also done a few folds.

On one occasion, I proved it for a few hours, then shaped the ring, and left that to for its final prove overnight in the fridge. Took it out, left it for around two hours to bring the dough temp up again, then baked it. It was very nice, with a decent irregular crumb, chewy crust and low-to-middling sourness.

Couronne 25 Mar 11 2

On a second occasion, I made up the dough, kneaded it, then proved it overnight in the fridge. In the morning, I left it to warm to ambient temp (around 17-18C), then gave it a few folds, shaped it, and gave it a final prove of a few hours, then baked. This is the result for that one:

Couronne 31 Mar 11 2

Or here it is cut:

Couronne 31 Mar 11

Sorry, it’s a rough phone photo, but you can see the nice irregular crumb again.

When I get this just right, I reckon it just might be my signature loaf.

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