Saturday, 25 April 2020

The sourdough debacle.

A damn fine looking loaf. But is it worth the effort?
I've never sworn so much in the kitchen. How can that be? Sourdough has just three ingredients: flour, water and salt. Just like the perfect martini it's all in the mixing. You have to understand your ingredients. What follows isn't so much a recipe as a campaign diary: the bread wars. This is a love letter sent from the farinaceous front. 

My aim was to create a method of producing a useful family loaf that was simple, predictable and not too onerous. I finally have one. You've heard the joke? "How come you weren't at your daughter's wedding? Couldn't go. I was baking my sourdough." But it's not funny because it is true. I have witnessed recipes for loaves that take seventy two hours and have myriad stages at hourly intervals. FOR A LOAF OF BLOODY BREAD! That's not something I will ever make. Three days for a sandwich. Nah.

That said... here we go... mine takes at least a day and could take longer, but that's only to work around your schedule. This is not exhaustive. I am not claiming my method is better or in any way definitive. Some of what I do will make the orthodox curse. However, my principles are sound. All I will say is it works for me and produces, consistently, the loaf below.

This is how this blog's going to work: first a description of sourdough and a naming of parts. Next some of my key observations for the newcomer. Also, some piece of kit you will need. Lastly the actual method. Hopefully a few laughs along the way. I will illustrate each key moment, all from the same loaf. I didn't cheat.

What is sourdough. Basically it's a form of middle-class one-upmanship... OK, it's not. (It is.) It's also the oldest form of bread, risen not with commercial yeasts but with naturally occurring yeasts (in the flour). With the yeasts there are also naturally occurring bacteria called lactobacilli that ferment the dough and create lactic acid which flavours the bread and strengthens the structure. These bacteria are also used to produce cheese, yoghurt and kimchee. Sourdough is different and distinct in texture and flavour and in creation. Typically you have a dark brittle crust and a well aerated interior, often called the crumb, that is soft but chewy and almost translucent.



Terminology. Sourdough has a lore of its own. Much of it seems to be there just to make life difficult. Why prove the dough in a basket and not a smooth bowl? There are many terms thrown around, often in French and Latin for some reason. The two key words though are starter and hydration.

- The starter. Much nonsense talked about this. I suspect this is the one block to many people's sourdough ambitions.The starter is a mix of bread flour and tepid water, usually 50/50, that has been allowed to start to ferment. To make a starter you mix 100g of water and flour in a jar and allow to stand for a day covered with a cloth or loose fitting lid. Next day throw away 150g of the mix and add 75g each of new flour and water. Mix well. You will soon see the mix bubble and froth. Repeat this each day for about a week. Ta dah: your starter. From here on, the starter (like all living things) has to be fed and watered.
My flour. All 16kg of it.

I keep my starter in the fridge and replace what I remove with equal weights of flour and water. I am not having my social life held to ransom by a jar of paste.

Masses of videos on YouTube if you need more info. Most overcomplicate things.

- Hydration. The amount of water added to the flour. Sourdough is typically much wetter than a yeast based dough. This is often expressed as a 'baker's ratio'. A loaf made with a kilo of flour and 700g of water is 70% hydration. The wetness of the dough can make it difficult to manage - hence my swearing. My method with this flour (left) is 60% hydration. I used to worry this meant I wasn't a committed baker, but I'm over that now. I'm writing this while the UK is still in Covid lockdown which means I can't experiment with different flours even if I wanted to.



As promised, some key observations.

Flour. It's all about the flour. My big hint is stick to one type of flour, one brand, for the first few loaves. Buy good flour. Look for a high protein content; a 'strong' flour that will develop lots of gluten. Doubtless a master baker could make decent bread out of rubbish flour. We can't. Go quality and stay there.

Different flours absorb different amounts of water. The higher the protein content, the more water is absorbed. Different grains react differently. Bakers often mix wheat with rye. Wholemeal is another world. This is why I recommend you buy a big bag and stick with it. Master the techniques before moving on.

You will make mistakes. You may throw bits of dough in anger. Your kitchen will end up splattered with floury water. Try not to get too depressed. If you do weep, don't do it over your dough. That only makes matters worse.

Sourdough is far more forgiving than yeast dough. It can take more abuse. So long as you can form it into some kind of ball and bake it, the results will be edible. Usually. Even dense blocks will toast into reason. The birds will love you anyway.

How you shape and handle the dough is really important. You will need to tension the dough before you bake it. This means stretching it over and under itself to form a ball that holds its shape. If you don't, the dough will simply flow and the rise will be limited when you finally bake it. It'll also be difficult to handle during the making.

If it isn't working for you, don't be scared to reduce the amount of water. I did by 10%. It was night and day. Remember different recipes use flours that you're probably not. They may be more absorbent. Add more water as you grow in experience and learn to handle a higher hydration dough.

Environmental temperatures matter. Sourdough reacts to its environment. In a warm room, things will happen more quickly than in a cool.



Kit. I wouldn't attempt to make this bread without these things. They're all cheap and readily available.





    • Water spray - Keeping your dough moist and for creating steam in the oven.
    • Bannaton - The name given to the proving basket. You could just use a large bowl. Many people do.
    • Cloth - To cover the bowl and to line the bannaton.
    • Deep bowl - For the mix and fermentation stages.
    • Dough scraper - To, er, scrape dough.
    • Bench scraper - To scrape dough off your work surface. And to lift unbaked loaves. If you try and lift from the top you will just stretch the dough into a sticky mess. Also good for scraping up excess flour. Larger better.








    My method.

    I recommend you watch this video to see how to handle the dough and how to lift and fold properly. Jack Sturgess has great hands. Here he takes you through a loaf from start to finish. He's a bit too damn perky for me but clearly knows exactly what he's doing. His method is different to mine.

    There are several stages common to almost all sourdoughs. These are:
    Autolyse - Mixing flour and water and allowing the water to be absorbed.
    Stretch and fold - Not kneading but similar.
    Bulk Fermentation - Creating organic acids and carbon dioxide in the dough
    Shaping - Adding tension to the dough so it maintains its shape and doesn't just flow. 
    Rise - Allowing the dough to increase in size before final baking
    Bake - Stick it in the oven. Ah, but even this isn't simple.

    This makes a large round loaf of around a kilo.
    You'll need 600g of flour. 360g of tepid water. 60g of 50/50 starter. 12g of salt.
    This is a 24hr process that requires about an hour of labour in total. The rest of the time is just dough in a bowl.

    I take my starter straight out of the fridge. I know it breaks the code and I don't care. 

    1. AutolyseIn a large bowl, mix your starter (straight from the fridge) and tepid water first (around 20°C) then add the flour and salt and combine thoroughly. This comes together as a shaggy mass. That is the technical term yes. It may feel dry but don't be tempted to add lots more water.

    Cover with a cloth and leave for 40 minutes.


    Really? This? REALLY. I know yeah. But yes. This is stage one.
    2. Stretch and fold. I use a large bowl partly to minimise mess. One does tire of having to clean one's kitchen four times in one hour. 

    When you lift the cover of your dough it should look very different. The water has now been absorbed and the dough will feel sticky and shiny. Wet your hands with warm water and in the bowl lift up one side and pull it over to the other. Turn the bowl and repeat seven times. The dough will change as you do this. You're developing the gluten structure. If your hands get sticky, scrape off the dough, wash and re-wet them. Dry hands make for very difficult stretching.




    Cover with a cloth and leave for 20 minutes.

    Repeat this three more times. Each time you come back to the dough you should find it more elastic and so able to be stretched further.




    At the end of the third stretch and fold, tuck the dough's edges underneath itself and place folds down in the bowl. A little spritz of water and cover with the cloth. Leave this for around 12 hours in a cool room.

    3. Bulk Fermentation. This is giving the lovely yeast and bacteria lots of time to do their thing: adding acids for flavour and structure and carbon dioxide bubbles to leaven the bread. Temperature affects the process so a very warm day will take less than 12 hours. Poke your finger into the dough and watch. It's ready when it slowly plumps back into shape. It should look and feel like a plump pillow.




    4. Shaping. First flour your cloth. Put it on the work surface and rub all over with flour. Then place in your bannaton or bowl. 

    When the dough is ready, scrape it out onto a lightly floured surface. Lightly dust your fingers and the dough with flour. Do a few more stretches and folds. What? I know. This can look like an instruction to 'make a model of the Taj Mahal in porridge'. Experience does count here. Sorry. 

    Be gentle and tender. It shouldn't be too sticky. If it is, persevere but don't add masses of flour. You want to avoid folding in raw flour as it isn't pleasant to eat and stops the loaf bonding. That said, I've made all these mistakes but still baked and ate the bloody thing.


    Tensioned dough. You wouldn't believe how much I'm enjoying this photo.
    Lift the dough up, dust lightly with flour and place folds side up in your floured and lined bannaton or bowl.

    Place the bannaton in a plastic bag to prevent drying. Some people use shower caps stretched over the basket.




    5. Rise. Leave in a cool place for another eight to twelve hours. You're not looking for the dough to double in size, just to take on some volume. It will feel light and plump.

    You can take longer if you put the dough in the fridge. Anything up to 24 hours. Bakers call this retarding. Basically the chill slows down the bacterial processes.

    6. Bake. Preheat your oven to 260°C or as hot as it will allow. I arrange my oven like this: with a shallow tray for water to create steam and an inverted cast iron pan to go underneath the baking tray. Why? Steam prevents the bread from crusting over too soon so allows for a larger oven rise. The cast iron pan is instead of a baking stone; it gives a big punch of heat to the bottom of the bread making the gases rise and crisping up the bottom crust.




    Now you have to transfer your lovely plump pillow to the baking tray. This is where it can all go horribly wrong.

    Dust a baking tray lightly with flour. Place the baking tray on the top of your bowl or bannaton and tip upside down. Remove the bannaton, leaving your dough sat on the baking tray covered with the floury lining cloth. Gently lift off the cloth. If it sticks, ease it away with a floured scraper. If disaster happens and it completely sticks, fold the dough back into a shape and re-tension. Honestly, this works.

    Even if it doesn't stick it will 'flow' and flatten a little. Don't worry.


    Hooray. Didn't stick.
    Slash the top of the loaf. Either a long shallow cut or a series of smaller incisions. Or try this! This allows for expansion and prevents the bread splitting at the sides. I use a scissors but bakers use razor blades, called a lame (pronounced lamé). My slashes invariably 'heal'. I don't know why.

    Pour a cup of water into the now very hot shallow tray to create steam. Careful! put the baking tray on the inverted pan or stone if using. Shut the door and reduce the temperature to 240°C for ten minutes. Now turn the bread in the oven and bake for another ten minutes. After this. Turn again and reduce the temperature to 220°C and bake for 20 minutes more. You want a deep brown colour.

    The bread should have a gorgeous, glossy crust and the bottom should tap like a drum. The loaf should crackle like a bonfire when you handle it. Careful, I've actually cut my lip on a shard of sough dough crust.

    Leave the bread for half an hour before cutting. If you do so earlier, you'll see steam billowing out. That's lost moisture. Better to allow the bread to reabsorb this.





    Let's set this all out again with clearer timings.

    Mix ingredients in bowl into a shaggy mass and allow to autolyse.
    Leave for 40 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 20 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 20 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 20 minutes.

    Lift and fold dough in bowl with wet hands.
    Leave for 12 hours.

    Pour dough on floured surface and shape with floured hands.
    Place in lined bannaton or shallow bowl.
    Leave for about 8 hours.

    Preheat oven to 260°C
    Turn out onto floured baking tray.
    slash loaf.
    Pour water into shallow tray to create steam.
    Reduce temperature to 240°C.
    Bake loaf for 10 minutes.
    Turn.
    Bake loaf for 10 minutes.
    Turn and reduce temperature to 220°C
    Bake for 20 minutes.

    Allow to cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack - this keeps the bottom crisp.

    If we include five minutes for each lift and fold, the shaping and the pre-bake, that's about 23 hours and 20 minutes. Was it worth it? I hope so. The toast is epic.







    Sunday, 12 April 2020

    Pears, plague and ginger... and bloody sourdough

    This is a long one. You can guess why. Never mind. What else you doing?

    It’s midwinter in my kitchen. At least, it looks like. Everywhere a fine frosting of flour. Occasionally a hanging doughdrop or dried gobbet of starter like a frozen tear; a baker’s lament. I HATE baking sourdough. It's one of those simple but deceptively difficult processes. But I must persist. On to the crisp crust and well aerated crumb.

    A warning here: the cabin fever has compressed my sarcasm to a diamond point. I am such fun to live with at the moment. I know, and I'm such a blithe fellow normally.

    Why have I returned to baking daily sourdough bread? Because we are in a time of Covid - a global lockdown. Also because the locust swarm of stockpilers has passed through all our shops and stripped the shelves of yeast. I had no choice really than to make a new starter. Faced with no new bread flour I also invested in a 16kg bag from our local corner shop that now more resembles a refugee supply depot. Best get kneading.

    Although, of course you don't knead sourdough. You stretch it, usually on the hour, for 48 hours (it feels like) until the cherry blossom blooms blue. Or some nonsense. There's so much contradictory 'lore' in sourdough community: seam up, seam down, lots of leavening or none at all, autolyse or leave. Dutch over or open tray. Gah.

    "Now divide your dough into two." Says the chippy, young Youtube baker, dragging his bench scraper neatly through a soft and silky pillow that responds to his touch like an expectant lover. Meanwhile there's me: an unsuccessful Moses facing the porridge sea. The bread god has forsaken me.

    So yeah, results are... mixed. I'm yet to find a process that is reliable and that produces a consistent result. When I do, I'll doubtless brag about it all seeming obvious in hindsight. 20/20 eh?

    This is my best one to date. Yesterday's. The day before's is now hanging from our plum tree awaiting the four tonne bird that has a big enough beak to break into it. Luckily little goes to waste as Etien, home from a closed Cambridge, will eat pretty much any wheat based, baked product so long as he can put enough (too much!) butter on it.


    Anyway...

    The supper club is obviously closed and has been for several weeks. We will doubtless return but sadly many great cafes and restaurants won't. Margins are thin enough anyway in this industry.This will be a catastrophe for so many local food businesses. My heart goes out to them; so hard to see your hard work killed off by something utterly beyond your control.

    This recipe is for the last desert I served. It feels like an age ago, when Corona was something left at the end of the barbecue that you stuck a little wedge of lime into. It's a little wintery as a result but delicious nonetheless and will be great in the autumn when great pears appear again. Who doesn't love a great pear?

    This is pears caramelised in a brandy caramel sauce and served with ginger ice cream and ultra crispy hazelnut and fennel olive oil crackers. It eats better than I photograph.

    This dessert owes something, ahem, quite a lot, to and old Ottolenghi dish.

    The crackers are well worth making on their own. They'll go well with most ice creams or soft fruit dessert or perhaps even with blue cheese.

    Four components
    Pears
    Caramel sauce
    Cracker
    Ginger ice cream

    The ice cream and crackers can be made well in advance. The pears and sauce will be done just prior to eating. The ice cream takes the longest so let's tackle that first.

    Ginger ice cream.
    Makes about a litre.

    I wanted a big flavour here, in part as a foil to the inevitable sugar-cream-caramel fest. I was after a fresh flavour too rather than a cooked in taste so I added ginger in four ways: dried powder, syrup, crystallised and infused raw root.

    The day before you start the recipe (Oh, now I tell you!) finely grate a large thumb size of root (no need to peel) into 300ml of double cream. Cover and leave to infuse in the fridge overnight. Before you add the cream, sieve out the root.

    You'll also need a jar of crystallised ginger in syrup. Odd that they call it 'stem ginger' as it isn't; it's just peeled root.

    In a saucepan mix 250ml full fat milk with100g caster sugar and 50g of the syrup from the ginger jar, over a medium heat until the temperature gets to about 75°C. Reduce the heat and whisk in six egg yolks to the milk and stir over a low heat until it starts to thicken. This happens at about 77°C. Well, apparently it does but I often find I'm in the low 80s. I check using my food thermometer, this has the advantage of allowing me to heat the mix quickly until it approaches the low 70s, then I can pull back and stir constantly. If you heat too quickly you will of course have, creamy scrambled yolks. Try as I might, I can't think of a use for that. Don't expect a heavy custard like shop bought Ambrosia, this is a crème anglaise; just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. To this, add a couple of teaspoons of ginger powder and some chopped up crystallised ginger (the stuff in the syrup we used earlier)

    Once done, pour in the gingery cream you infused earlier and chill the mix in the fridge before churning in your ice cream maker.




    Hazelnut and fennel seed olive oil crackers
    Makes at least 10

    I love a cracker and these are particularly good but simple enough to make with kids.

    Set your oven to 200°C.

    In a bowl mix 125g of plain flour, half a teaspoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt and caster sugar, 25ml of olive oil and trickle in just enough cold water to bring the mix together into a dough. Don't beat the buggery out of it, we're making crackers not bread. No need to develop the gluten.

    Pull off small balls of dough (about 15g each) and roll into cylinders. Now roll out the dough as thin as you can into silicon or baking paper into long thin shapes. Not quite papery but not far off. Brush these with more olive oil.

    In a small bowl, crush a tablespoon of fennel seeds with two of blanched hazelnuts and two of caster sugar. Sprinkle liberally over the crackers.

    Bake for 5-8 minutes on a baking tray, maybe turning the tray around once to ensure an even browning. Keep a close eye. Don't let them over-brown or they will be bitter.

    Store, carefully... between leaves of baking paper in an airtight box.


    Caramelised pears with brandy caramel sauce
    Serves six (But allow one pear per person for larger groups)

    Probably best to be fairly sober when you do this. Sorry.

    Peel, core and cut into quarters as many ripe pears as you have people planned. In this case, six. Look out for Willams pears but Conference will do. Needs to be something aromatic. Mix the pear quarters in with 100g of caster sugar to coat. 

    Put your thickest heaviest pan on a high heat. Cast iron would be great here. Have ready a bottle of brandy and 50g of unsalted butter, chilled and cut into chunks. We'll be flambéing the pears so take courage and turn off your extractor.

    When the pan is really, really hot, place the sugared pear segments in and LEAVE BE for a minute or two. Don't push them around. You want to get a good colour on the edges. Now add a good glass of brandy and set alight. I turn off my extractor and light so I can see the flame. Once the blue flame has died down (this is why you need to see it) remove the pears and keep warm.

    To the pan add the rest of the sugar, let it melt and heat to a caramel colour and then add in the lumps of butter. Stir to create a delicious sticky caramel sauce. Maybe add a pinch of ground cloves.


    To serve. In a bowl add the warm pears and drizzle with the caramel sauce. Add a scoop of ice-cream and a cracker. Serve quickly. The ice cream will melt.























    Monday, 3 February 2020

    Pan fried cod with a pea and lemon verbena risotto





    I was looking for an easy partner for a great piece of cod I was going to pan-fry* for friends. I mean food partner obviously. I suppose my wife might object to an 'easy partner' in the house. Unless it was for her. Anyway, sub-laddish bantz aside, I decided on a risotto. These can be made ahead of time if you only take it half way. They have almost infinite variety too; mushroom and shellfish are obvious choices but I've seen some made with red wine and chorizo. As this was to partner fish I decided on pea and lemon verbena as it grows in my garden.

    *Funny that we always say pan-fry and not simply 'fry'. Why is that? Is it to create a clear culinary distinction between restaurant sophistication and a greasy spoon with its eggs, bacon and bubble? But fried is what it is. A delicious piece of fried fish. Pan-fried fish. No, the second one sounds tastier. Damn my pretensions.


    Before we do the rice let's discuss the protein. Buy the freshest fish you can. It cooks better. It stays together. It crisps more. This means avoiding supermarkets; that stuff is old, flabby and usually unforgivable. Why supermarkets can't serve great fish I don't know, but they don't. Find a good fishmonger and cherish them with regular trade.

    Take your fish out of the fridge an hour or so beforehand. Put it on a clean tea towel to dry it off. Sprinkle salt on the top and leave, allowing the salt to be drawn in and moisture to be drawn out. Don't fry wet fish. You'll be trying to Vanish out the oil spatter for many washes. I did that piece in the picture with a glug of hot oil in a very hot pan. Skin side down first. Turn the heat down to medium. Leave the fish it for a few minutes or it will stick. Let a crust form. Now add a knob of butter, let it foam and flip the fish. Spoon that lovely butter over the fish for another five minutes until you get a golden crust forming. Move the fish to a plate and let it rest, allowing the hot side to cook the middle. You want translucent flakes not cotton wool. Overcooked fish is death in the mouth.If you're unsure just prise the fish apart in the pan with a sharp knife. If it looks raw, cook for a minute more.Then let it rest.

    Risotto should be a creamy affair, but not with cream. It's well massaged starch from the grains that thicken the stock. Ignore any advice to add dairy in any form other than butter and parmesan. It should also be liquid but not runny. The rice should be loose in texture and firmer than soft. I've never really known what al-dente means with rice so I won't use that term.

    Risotto rice comes in three main varieties: arborio, carnaroli and Vialone Nano. The last one is my favourite but there's not much in it (half of Veneto will now leave angry comments!). Just don't use long grain. Most supermarkets stock Arborio.

    As ever the superb Serious Eats has a page dedicated to risotto technique and the science of starch. Worth a read. They do advocate adding cream though. Ignore that.


    Pea and lemon verbena risotto.
    Serves 6.

    Lemon Verbena. Almost impossible to buy. 
    First off. Sorry. You won't be able to get lemon verbena unless you grow it or you live close to some impossibly posh shops in one of the London Hills: Notting, Highgate, Primrose. You know the type. So, sorry about that. You could replace with tarragon and a gentle zest of half a lemon. It'll be similar and delicious. I have a large LV plant in my back garden so I'm never short. I know: smug.

    Bit of prep before we work with the rice. You'll need a stock. As this is a pea risotto, make a pea stock.You'll often use a chicken stock in risotto but that's the wrong flavour here and I wanted to make this a vegetarian dish, not least because my eldest son is now partnered with non meat eater and they're coming for dinner soon. Hi Meg.

    Bring up 250g of frozen peas to the boil in a litre of water. Once they are boiling and bobbing about, lift them out with a slotted spoon and put them into ice water. This stops them cooking into sludge and preserves a vibrant colour. You know: pea green.

    Return the pea water to a low heat and add: a bay leaf, a few inches of rosemary and some parsley stalks. Simmer for a few minutes then turn off the heat, leaving the herbs to infuse to make a light vegetable stock until you're ready to start the risotto.

    Strain your stock and bring back to a simmer.

    Remove your peas from the cold water and mash them up with a little olive oil. We're not making a puree here, just helping things along. I still want to see whole peas. Season with a little sugar and salt.

    Chop one large, white onion into fine dice and fry in a 50g of butter in a wide, shallow sided pan. Add a tablespoon of crushed fennel seeds. Cook on a medium heat until the onion is translucent and getting golden. No brown though. Not the right flavour. Now add three finely chopped stalks of celery and cook for another five minutes. Add another 50g of butter, bring up the heat and stir in 400g of risotto rice. Stir to fry the rice for a few minutes until it too is translucent. Pour in about 250ml of dry Vermouth. I like Noilly Prat. If you have no Vermouth, an aromatic white wine will do. Bring this to the boil and reduce, stirring often. Now add about a quarter of your pea/herb stock. Stir in, 'massaging' the rice with the back of a wooden spoon to encourage the starch to mix.

    Fennell fritter: the perfect accompaniment
    At this point the proto-risotto be left until guests arrive or you're ready to eat. It takes about another 15 minutes from here.

    Again, bring your stock to a simmer. Don't add cold stock to a risotto. Now spend 15 minutes pouring in the stock a wine glass at a time. Stir until it's absorbed and repeat. taste the grain. It should still have some bite. You might need little boiling water in addition to your stock. Once happy with the texture, finely grate in 50g of good parmesan (not so much as this is to go with fish), a few chopped spring onions and a handful of chopped lemon verbena or herb of your choice. Finally stir in the pea mix. It'll warm up in seconds. Taste and maybe season with salt. And hell, perhaps a blob more butter, just no cream yeah?

    I served mine with a ring of pea shoots dressed with a little home-made basil oil. The cod goes on top. For a little extra crunch a bowl of fennel fitters works very well and complements both rice and fish perfectly.