Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New sourdough species

The kids helped with the bread making last night. The beast on the left is a giant cockroach and its friend is a spotty giraffe. Both have since been gobbled up my their makers.

Meanwhile, I went for the abstract wavy blob with the rest of the dough...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dream of the brown turtle

Amazing what comes out of the oven: one day a beautiful, perfectly formed loaf; the next, um, a turtle.

Though it might not be immediately apparent, this is my interpretation of Ed Wood's cinnamon, fruit and nut loaf from Classic Sourdoughs. The recipe called for the dough to be rolled flat, spread with a sugar and cinnamon mixture, then rolled up and placed into a loaf tin. Not having any loaf tins of the right size I decided to try forming the two loaves-worth of dough into a single giant roll-up on a sheet.

Without a tin to hold the contents together a good deal of the molten sugar leaked out during baking, so that when the turtle emerged from the oven it was sitting in a small toffee lagoon.

It looked much more appetizing when sliced open (best not to think of it as a turtle at this point) to display the raisins, walnuts and cinnamon scroll pattern within.

The slices pictured here survived only briefly before being gobbled up by the kids. They enjoyed the toffee too.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Foot fetish

Putting aside the slight set back with the rye starter (complete and utter failure would be more accurate but that undermines the inspiration a bit too much) I decided to try my hand at ciabatta: Italian slipper bread, so named, apparently, because the loaves resemble footwear (?)

I followed an excellent recipe on Mike Avery's hugely useful (and, indeed, hugely huge) Sourdough Home web site. I really enjoy Mike's writing style: it's encouraging and it cleverly manages to provide plenty of detail without being intimidating or overly technical.

I won't bother describing all of the steps. If you're interested you can consult Mike's recipe which I followed closely, apart from choosing to leave out the sun-dried tomatoes that he adds to the dough.

I did an extremely poor job of transferring the risen dough from bowl to baking sheet, ending up with oddly shaped things that, while very rustic, didn't look much like slippers to me... more like deflated giant sea cucumbers. But, after the final short proving, I bunged them into the oven and hoped for the best.

And here is the result...

One doesn't like to blow one's trumpet, but I venture to suggest that if Jamie Oliver or Antonio Carluccio had just whipped these out of the oven they would be well pleased. I couldn't believe how nicely they turned out.

As for the name: slippers doesn't even begin to describe how absolutely luscious and perfect in hand and mouth this bread is. Say ciabatta but think sesso e fantasia !

Try Mike's recipe for yourself, you'll love it.

Ryes and falls

Well, everything was going swimmingly with my first rye starter. After 24 hours it looked like this...

Lots of very promising little bubbles.

Another 12 hours later it looked like this...

Super ! I thought.

This is easy, I thought.

Pride comes before a fall and that's just what the starter did: fall, all the way back to a lifeless flour and water paste. Despite being fed for the next couple of days it stubbornly refused to come back to life.

I'll try again.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Catch it in the rye

After reading Sarah Franklin's article on creating a rye starter I've been inspired to try it myself. And since the air here in Sydney has been well washed by all of the recent rain (it's been bucketing actually... dumping, pouring, pissing down, cats and dogs and almost elephants) I thought I'd take advantage of this and try a rye and rainwater concoction.

Actually, the various particles and poisons that nurture the lungs of city dwellers aren't really a concern in using rainwater to start the starter. After the culture becomes active, and the cycle of diluting, discarding and feeding has been repeated a few times using tap water, the concentration of any nasty bits will be, if not zero, then certainly a lot lower than what you're breathing.

There seems to be a good deal of disagreement between sourdough experts about whether the organisms that do the magic come predominantly from the flour used to create the culture or from the atmosphere. Perhaps it depends on the flour, or the place, or the phase of the moon, or whether you brushed your teeth that morning, or all of these and and a million and one other unknowable influences. I'm happy to take advantage of my profound ignorance on this question by choosing to believe that place matters: sourdough terroir. Hence the rainwater.

As Sarah's article illustrates, the steps required to start a rye starter couldn't be easier:
  1. mix rye flour and water into a goop
  2. keep goop warm-ish
  3. wait
So, this afternoon I combined Australian certified organic rye flour with a small volume of highly polluted Sydney rainwater.

I'm using a yoghurt making flask with some tepid water in it to incubate the mixture.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All creatures great and small and chewy

The younger bakers in the family got to work and created some wonderful sourdough animals. Here they are in their gestating form, a giant ladybird on the left, and elephant and smiley face on the right...

And here they are, resplendant after their metamorphosis in the oven and looking forward to being gobbled up by their creators (such is life)...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nothing like a nice date

I decided to try a fruit loaf this morning. I used much the same recipe as in this post but with the addition of a couple of tablespoons of honey to the mix. After the dough had been kneaded for five minutes or so I added a good handful of whole dried dates, and another of crushed walnuts, folding them in a bit at a time and kneading for another couple of minutes.

I popped the dough into a round cake tin, then glazed the top with honey water (using the sticky fingers or baker's fondle technique) and sprinkled on a generous amount of poppy seeds.

Because it was quite a large loaf with moist dough (to allow the dates to suck some of that moisture up) I baked it at about 400°F for half an hour and then reduced the heat to about 350°F for another twenty minutes. This worked really well: the loaf cooked through nicely while the top crust was crispy but not too think or overdone.

The verdict: boffo - a good one ! Even the youngest member of the family, renowned for brutally honest food criticism, gave it the thumbs up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Even more exciting than watching grass grow

This is my first attempt at capturing the private life of sourdough with time-lapse photography. Yes, the lighting is really crappy with the sun going in and out of the clouds and then me switching the room lights on. Still, it's amazing to watch the culture grow.

This sequence represents about five hours.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rebirth, buttocks and other simple pleasures

Looking for signs of life

After a hiatus of about six months, due to an assortment of feeble excuses, I've started baking sourdough again. My cultures, two Italian starters that I got from the indubitable Ed Wood a couple of years ago, plus one home-brewed starter made with rain-water last year, had been languishing in jars at the back of the fridge.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, one of the Italian starters had 'died', by which I mean that the sourdough organisms had been replaced by a foul-smelling brown goop, the cloying stench of which filled the kitchen for hours after I was silly enough to open the lid of the jar.

Luckily for me, the other two starters had somehow managed to survive the months of neglect. Over the course of a fortnight I revived the first these: the Italian starter from Camaldoli Hill in Naples. It had turned into an almost solid whitish-mass under a layer of black hooch that smelled powerfully of vinegar and alcohol. A series of daily 'washings', each of which involved vigorously mixing the starter in about a litre of water, discarding all but a cup of this dilute solution, and then feeding it enough flour to make a thick batter, gradually reduced the acidity and woke up the sourdough bugs. After a few days, the starter produced a tiny bit of froth and bubble. Then, finally, it sprang to life, trebling in volume and giving off that most wonderful fruity, zingy scent that says "I'm happy - let's bake".

So, I did !

Here's a pic of the first loaf just after it emerged from the oven last night, filling the house with that earthy, primally-satisfying smell that only freshly baked bread has. I left it on the rack for a while to cool off, making those wonderful little crackling sounds (it, not me). A little later, while it was still nicely warm, my partner and I shared the first slices.

Yum and double yum !

The Recipe

It seems miraculous that such a work of bread-art, with all its wonderful flavours, smells and textures can be conjured up from the very simplest of recipes by the most amateur of bakers such as myself. If I can do it, you can.

The recipe I used for this loaf is my take on the San Francisco sourdough recipe in Ed Wood's Classic Sourdoughs.


1/2 cup of liquid culture
3 1/2 (-ish) cups plain flour
1 tspn salt


I like the 'liquid' culture to have a consistency like a thick batter at room temperature - it will pour out of a jar, but only slowly. In a bowl, combine the culture, 1 cup of flour and about 1/2 cup of water (or enough to give a thicker but still pourable consistency). Cover and leave for 12 hours at room temperature - here in the autumnal cool of Sydney that's about 15-22°C (60-72°F).

Mix in another cup of flour and a little water - just enough to give a consistency that is somewhere between batter and blob, ie. a bit thicker than the previous stage. Proof for around 8 hours at room temperature, after which you should have a nice fluffy thing in the bowl.

Spoon knead a cup of flour into the mixture to form a sticky dough. Turn out onto a well-floured board and hand knead, adding more flour as necessary to stop it sticking. If all has gone well, the dough will now approach an erotic state of firmness and elasticity like a lover's buttocks beneath your hands. I like the dough to still be a little moist (another erotic adjective there) rather than getting to the point where it stops taking up any flour.

Roughly shape the dough and pop it into an oiled, floured loaf tin. I like the dough to be about half way up the tin initially. Sprinkle a little flour onto the dough, cover the loaf tin with a cloth or container to keep the top from drying out, and let it rise until it's a little higher than the tin.

While the dough is rising, pre-heat your oven to 200°C (400°F). When the dough looks ready, pop a pan of water into the oven on the bottom shelf to provide steam then put the loaf tin in. Close the oven door gently ! Bake for about 40 minutes or until the loaf is golden on top and sounds nicely hollow when you tap the bottom.

Allow the loaf to cool on a wire rack.