2010: The Year My Sourdough Obsession Gets Personal

Many years ago I made a feeble attempt to bake bread, and the results were sufficiently disappointing to keep the local bakeries in business. A decade or so later, inspired by Jess Ho’s regular breadmaking success, I decided to try again.

On our trip up country over the holidays, I read a simple recipe from an early Stephanie Alexander cookbook, in which she instructed me to put the yeast, sugar, water and flour all together and let it rise. Having left my critical faculties at home that day, I literally piled the ingredients together, stirred a bit, and waited. Of course, since I hadn’t got the yeast active with the sugar and water before adding the flour, the resulting sponge was rather firm and somewhat dry, but I persevered with my obtuse instruction following and left it to catch some wild yeast. Each day I simply re-wet a cloth and put it back over the starter. It gained a bit of that beery smell, but was a bit of a lump – not that exciting, though I was, in fact, still excited. After three days, I added starter to a new dough, let it rise, punched it down and formed loaves, let it rise, and baked some beautiful looking but rather boring tasting bread. It was still better than supermarket bread, but let down by poor-quality flour from the local country Woolies and poor process, it was ye olde white bread incarnate. But then we came home…

After a trip to Whole Earth in Smith Street Fitzroy, I had plenty of flour to play with. I also happen to already have a number of great references on this topic, all of which I spent a few days reading in preparation for the challenge of making good sourdough bread. I should also explain that as I am formerly from the west coast of the US, I have a strong predilection for very sour sourdough, which is the first bread I intend to master. And I’m determined to do it with wild yeasts, hence the need to commence my own sourdough starter with just flour, water and a plum plucked from our tree.

So the starter was simply equal parts flour and water (I did 2 cups water, 1 cup rye flour and 1 cup unbleached, all organic) and a plum, which will help introduce wild yeasts more quickly. Stir, cover with a muslin cloth, and wait. O_o

Next morning, Fran (I’ve named her with a nod to my favourite San Francisco sourdoughs, and in the tradition of @thatjessho’s ‘Rusty’) was bubbling merrily, and had filled the house with the smell of a football team on the pints. I moved her closer to the back door, fed her a little more flour and water, stirred eagerly, and left her alone to get wild. Which she did.

Next, to be honest, I went to Brisbane for two days, then came back to a bunch of office work, so poor neglected Fran (Stuart was feeding her, but by now she really wanted to make bread) got a bit lonely. I popped her in the fridge for two days, and then pulled her out yesterday afternoon to reactivate the yeast, and a couple of hours later mixed her with some more flour and water, kneaded for about 10 minutes, and then left her to rise overnight. (Remind me to write a poem about the deep, visceral pleasure of kneading…)

As I wanted Stuart to taste Fran’s first loaves, we were up at 6:30am to divide her into two loaves, knead them briefly and then allow to rise on a lightly floured pan for about half an hour. Finally, into a hot oven (200C) for about 40 minutes, tapped the bottom to check for the hollow sound, and out she came to finish cooking and cooling on the rack.

10 minutes later, we sat down to a delectable brekky of scrambled eggs, fresh rye sourdough, with sea salt and cracked pepper.

In terms of the results, I reckon the loaves wanted another five minutes in the oven and five cooling as they were a little too dense and moist for my palate, though very tasty. I look forward to making one that has all of those lovely chewy well-aerated holes throughout. I hope to post regularly on Fran’s loaves this year until I perfect the art, so stay tuned…

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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