Who has time to make bread? You do.

Nearly two years ago I set out to make reliably good sourdough, and in the last two months I think I got there. There have been many months of experimenting, unreliable record keeping, distracted successes and focused failures along the way, and for those of you who don’t want to wait two years to make good bread, I’m going to give you my recipe.

I use a stand mixer for mine, which does save time and makes working with a wet, sticky dough a lot easier, but it can easily be done by hand without a lot of extra time required as I use a minimal kneading technique. I’ve learned that supermarket, stock standard flour doesn’t make great bread – these days I’m using 12.5kg bags of pizza flour from UCG Wholesalers. Pizza flour is a ‘strong flour’, that is, it has a higher gluten content, which is better for bread and pizza. Low gluten flours (which are typical of most self-rising and plain flours in the supermarket) are best for cakes and pastries. As I bake almost every day, I get through 12.5kg every three weeks or so, and it’s great value from UCG (there’s one in Melbourne CBD and one up on Bell St in Preston). I play with other flours occasionally too, especially rye, but my results are a lot more variable to date.

As for my starter, Fran, I feed her about a tablespoon of flour & a bit less of water each day, give her a quick stir and leave her on the bench with a lid loosely perched on the plastic honey jar in which she resides. In really hot weather I usually pop her in the fridge or she gets a bit manky (we must be related). It took me ages to learn not to add too much starter to my bread – the acidity keeps the gluten from making a lovely, stretchy, chewy crumb.

I’ve stuck with adding a bit of commercial dry yeast to get a reliable rise, and if I need to speed it up (when there’s no time for an overnight rise), I just add a bit more.

The key to sourdough is long rises, not loads of labour, in my experience. Hence putting a dough on in the morning, popping it into tins before bed, and into the oven in the morning seems to work perfectly, with minimal effort on my part and maximum time for farming all day. πŸ™‚

Recipe

1T starter (give or take – I often make double quantities, but only up the starter by about half)

2C pizza flour

1C tepid tap water (I reckon our rainwater has improved the bread too, by the way)

pinch flake salt

1tsp dry yeast

drizzle olive oil

Method

Pour starter into bowl. Add flour, dry yeast, salt, water and oil. Knead on lowest setting or by hand for about 1 minute – just until combined. Let stand 15 minutes. Knead again for about 30 seconds.

Brush a light covering of olive oil on top and leave to rise (prove) for 6-10 hours. The wetness of the dough and temperature and humidity in your house will determine the right length of time, but you can also make it suit your schedule. If you get home late from work, it may have fallen from the top of its rise a bit, but it doesn’t really matter, you’ll still get great bread from the second rise.

For the second rise, I don’t really ‘punch it down’, I simply pour it out of the bowl and fold it over like a book, turned at 90 degrees repeatedly, to form bubbles inside until it’s quite tight and doesn’t want to stretch any further. Then I put it into a lightly oiled (and usually with polenta on bottom) bread tin for the final rise. NB oil your hands and the board for this bit to avoid loads of sticky dough everywhere. Allow to rise overnight.

A quick note on stickyness – I love the results of a wetter dough, but too wet and it doesn’t rise with structure (so needs to be in a tin, not on a tray), too dry and you get dry bread. A really wet dough may rise beautifully but collapse before you hop up in the morning to bake it – the result will still be good, but just a bit shorter with a tougher top crust. Keep experimenting until it’s how you like it best.

Sunken loaves from a wet dough left to rise too long - still noms!

My favourite bit is waking up with a gorgeous sunrise washing through the house and turn on the oven to warm the kitchen.

I bake my bread on the lowest rack at max temp (which on my oven is around 250C) for about 20 minutes – until the top is golden & the bottom makes a hollow sound if you tap it. Occasionally I remember to put a water bath on the top rack or spray some water in for more yummy holes in the bread.

Enjoy your warm, fresh loaves every morning and take time to reflect on what a mood enhancer they are.

There’s no doubt that making bread feels good – it’s homely, nurturing & nostalgic – and if you’re making good bread, it’s especially satisfying. And given I devote around 10 minutes prep time to mine (that includes all stages), I no longer believe anyone who says it’s too hard or too time consuming, or that it’s some Little House on the Prairie anti-feminist practice.

What’s the best thing since sliced bread? A whole loaf you made yourself.

Mood leaveners

All bread is not created equal…

If you’ve been here awhile, you’ll know I decided to learn to make good sourdough this year. Well, here we are on the 1st of March, and by golly, I made a bloody good sourdough ciabatta last night. So tasty, with such a lovely crumb and crust that 10 year old Oscar declared, “Mum! This is amazing! And you said you needed all year to learn how, and it’s only been what, two months?” Major brownie points for eldest child. πŸ™‚

But let me caveat last night’s loaves – they were indeed sour, with an excellent crusty yet chewy crust and a good crumb, but not as chewy as I think a ciabatta should be. It was really good bread, but still doesn’t fit my imaginary endpoint for this year.


Some detail then. For these ciabatta, I did a series of short kneads of a fairly wet dough, though not so sticky I couldn’t handle it, with ever-increasing proving times. So maybe 10 second kneads three times with about 10 minutes in between each, then about a 2-hour rise before splitting the dough, stretching it carefully and allowing another half-hour rise. Into a very hot oven (250C) with a water bath on the top shelf & a quick spray of the loaves at the beginning & one midway through baking. My starter, Fran, is currently mostly organic wholemeal flour, and the flour I added for these was organic unbleached. I didn’t add any commercial yeast as I was looking for a flat bread anyway. This was lazy baking at its finest, and the results were lovely.

A few nights earlier, I whipped Fran up into some rye dinner rolls to have with our soup.They achieved exactly the soft, pliable texture you want from rolls, with crusty crusts. This dough was wetter than the ciabatta, and I added some commercial yeast for a better rise to great effect.

I’ve also embraced the joys of sourdough pizza crust, which goes perfectly with the salty, spicy combination of Stuart’s home-cured olives, anchovies, bacon and chilies, plus garden-fresh tomatoes and basil and a thin lashing of homemade passata.

So it seems my ‘specialty’ breads are the winners thus far, as my loaves have often been unwilling to give me a good rise. They do say that sourdough starters are unreliable leaveners, and I’m finding this to be distinctly true. Check out my most hilariously unintentionally flat loaf, which still tasted quite nice, though a bit dry (and hell on the toaster, let me tell you!)

When I’m looking for a higher loaf, especially for toasting, I’m learning to add commercial yeast. It doesn’t affect the flavour, which is invariably sour, but gives the bread the lift that Fran seems unable to offer.
I should add that the sourness is wildly variable as well, though predictably so. If Fran hasn’t made some bread for more than a few days, she gets rather sour. If I’m making bread every day or two, she’s less sour. The metaphors write themselves, so I won’t bother here.

This last loaf below was my sourest to date (and by the way, given my California origins, I’m looking for the sourest of the sourdoughs!), and it also had the best crumb, even though it didn’t rise much. If you check out the dough below, you’ll see I really took Annette’s advice to heart on this one and worked a really sticky, wet dough. In fact, it finally inspired me to get a proper dough scraper to assist with this rather messy method.

I feel almost guilty that for those of you out there looking for a scientific account of breadmaking, I’m just tossing around vague generalities. But these days, I cook by touch, smell, taste and imagination, rather than ratios. There are obviously ratios involved, but given my propensity to constantly adjust them by a smidgen, I’m afraid I can’t really offer much insight into quantities of what’s in my bread.

I think one of the best things about my relaxed approach has been the way it makes breadmaking seem like a simple and lovely thing to do, much like making the children a milkshake rather than mastering a croquembouche. It means I wander into the kitchen, see Fran on the bench and think, ‘Hey, I might get some bread started,’ and then wander in and out of the kitchen to tend to the dough over the afternoon or evening. The other positive outcome is the exciting array of outcomes – this is no McDonald’s where you can expect the same burger every time, no matter where you are – open your palate and be prepared to be surprised at every new loaf of bread. πŸ™‚

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…

On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily

People who know me know that I cook for the pleasure of it, and that I am perhaps more of a feeder than an eater – I am compelled to cook for others, to nurture, love, entertain and delight friends and family with copious amounts of delicious food (well, usually delicious, sometimes ordinary and occasionally woeful). This is not to say I don’t like to indulge in sumptuous eating myself, but my focus is often more on the production and distribution side of the equation. And I love to cook with others who are as passionate about cooking as I am, especially when their motivations are similar.

The world is full of people cooking, but their drives to do so can be wildly disparate. Folks cook because they have to, for the pleasure of the creativity and results, to nurture community, to show off, and to accrue cultural capital, amongst other rationale (many subconscious). I suspect most of the time our motivations are complicated.

As a keen cook, I have many friends who are also passionate cooks, as well as many reluctant or aspiring cook friends. I love having opportunities to cook with friends and family, especially when our motivations are aligned, as that makes for the most comfortable sort of communal cooking. Those inclined to regale me with the expense of their ingredients, or to dictate to me a ‘better’ way to do something (though thoughts and advice are very welcome, controlling my creative process is not), or to rabbit on about how ‘there is only ONE extra virgin olive oil to use, and it must be Italian’ (etc ad nauseaum) are the ones I find to be kitchen killjoys, frankly. Admittedly, sometimes we will all comment on the high cost of a much-coveted item we are delighted to have, or go through a phase (it’s always a phase) where we will only buy a particular variety of something from a special place of origin, but for those in the market for more cultural capital, it’s a modus operandi.

And so it happened that the beautiful gift economy of the Twitterverse brought me a new friend who matched me fantastically in the kitchen these holidays. I met Zoe (@crazybrave, who also blogs here) in real life a few months back in Canberra (where she lives with her partner & two adorable children). That day she showed me her garden full of artichokes and chooks, the bathtubs housing the newly planted water chestnuts, and her copious shelves of a droolworthy cookbook collection, then made us a lovely impromptu lunch of grilled chicken and white bean salad before giving me a lift to the airport. A friendship was struck, and it was obvious to us both that fruits would be born of it.

Which brings us to our recent holiday near Crookwell in southern New South Wales. A trip that should have taken the Jonai about eight hours in the Volvster in fact lasted two days, due to a blowout just over an hour into the trip. Of course, we were travelling on the Sunday after Christmas, so nobody was open to sell us a new tyre. We limped at 80km/hr the 200km up to Albury, where the kids at least got to have a lovely swim in the Murray, intending to buy a new tyre the next morning for the final 400km. Alas, Monday was the Boxing Day holiday – everything was still closed – and even the cafe where we broke our fast added a 10% surcharge for the pleasure of serving us on a public holiday (think insult to injury). Twitter was consulted, then mostly ignored. The Jonai were unstoppable. Wild horses would not keep us in Albury for another night. And so we hit the road, at the zen-like speed of 80km/hr, and drove all the way to Mark and Antonia’s gorgeous country retreat, Hillview, wondering whether intrepid would at any moment become just plain stupid. It didn’t, we made it, and the feasting began.

The peace of Hillview cannot be overstated. Some years ago Mark accidentally cut the phone line, and they decided that suited them very well, thank you. And so it does. There’s no mobile reception for the most part either, so it’s kind of like camping, but in a really beautiful old Edwardian house, in beds, with a toilet and a shower. And electricity. Okay, it’s not at all like camping except that you disconnect from all social media, and just plain socialise with loved ones. And read lots of books. Lots and lots of books. Oh, and there’s an oven…

Before Zoe and the kids arrived (her partner Owen came up two days later), we feasted on such diversities as lamb marinated in yoghurt, garlic, lemon and salt, cooked out on the brazier, and Gado Gado another night, but things really got going with the new arrivals. Digging through Mark and Antonia’s awesome collection of cookbooks old and new, I found a Marcella Hazan recipe for a sort of baked risotto with layers of eggplant, sugo and parmigiana. I had a frozen ratatouille with me, so we improvised a Risotto Ratatouille Parmigiana that was out of this world.

The next night, we worked out our menu around the enormous t-bone steaks Zoe had brought from her sister’s farm near Bombala, complemented beautifully with a fresh horseradish sauce from the garden. As Zoe moved to prepare some green beans with cashews, I whipped up a garlicky cheesy pasta for the kids and some roast potatoes to go with our steaks. All of this was achieved with such ease and camaraderie you’d think we’d been cooking together for years, not a day. There were tastings, suggestions and questions, advice sought, notes compared on our usual techniques, and plenty of chatter about all things Twitter, food and family.

Did I mention we both brought the same knives? Each of us brought our ten-inch chef’s knife and our Chinese cleavers. Zoe’s was sharper than mine (for shame, tammois), but we managed to find a sharpener that was ‘not a gadget’ and rectify the situation.

The day of Owen’s arrival, we decided to roast the Wessex Saddleback pork shoulder the ever-generous Zoe had brought along, taking inspiration from the beautiful big horseradish leaves. So Zoe laid the leaves in the roasting dish, studded the pork with garlic and fennel flowers plucked from the roadside, rubbed it with lemon and salt and poured a bit o’ bubbly over the top. It marinated for a couple of hours and then we roasted it for about an hour and a half. Meanwhile, I stuffed tomatoes with garlicky breadcrumbs made from the end of my homemade bread (I got a starter going the first day and subsequently baked fresh bread every second day – this is a new thing for me, but watch this space!), as well as some fresh pecorino and lovely reggiano, and the basil we brought in a pot with us from Melbourne. Next, I threw together a potato gratin, steeping the milk with herbs from the garden before straining it onto the ‘taters, along with plenty of mozzarella, reggiano and Stuart’s home-cured olives. It was a spectacular dinner out on the patio with its marvellous views of the surrounding hills.

The final night we were all together, ravioli was on the menu. I figured I’d do a simple spinach and ricotta filling (Oscar’s favourite) and an even simpler burnt sage butter sauce with a little garlic thrown in (’cause it just ain’t a Jonai dinner without plenty o’ garlic). Simple, right? Sure, except that I left my brain elsewhere when I didn’t suggest we let the frozen spinach thaw and then strain it, resulting in a very watery filling that did its utmost to destroy the integrity of the pasta. When we realised where we were going so horribly wrong (much later than I should have recognised the problem), Zoe tried making pasta band-aids for the ill affected and I tried straining the filling through a clean chux. This helped, but the difficulties continued. Stuart even came in and did a big manly squeezing of the filling through a linen tea towel, after which I made the final tray of picture perfect ravioli. The earliest ones by this stage, we were referring to as the ‘crapioli’. Those that were clearly not going to survive a rolling boil I popped into a baking tray with water and put in the oven to cook, then served to the children first – to my surprise, they were highly acclaimed! And so were the many more that followed. The lesson? Well, aside from start cooking earlier (we didn’t eat until 8:30pm, which is a wee bit late for the kiddles), make sure your filling isn’t too wet, and be resigned to chaos if you want a bunch of kids to help, the main lesson Zoe and I took was that we all make mistakes, and in most cases, they’re salvageable. Sometimes, even delicious.

Of course there was more food than just the dinners, like the garlicky, basily, lemony hollandaise on mushies one morning, many pancakes, Zoe’s magnificent salad of air-dried beef, white beans, roast capsicum, pine nuts, baby spinach, olive oil, balsamic and mustard, Stuart’s delectable roast garlicky baba ganoush, endless loaves of fresh bread and the final quiche/pastie/pie making extravaganza to use up leftovers and dregs of ingredients. And although a lot of time was spent on the labour, it felt quite effortless, and often seamless. What a treat and a pleasure to cook together in this way, without competition or posturing, just for the love of it. All nine of us felt nurtured and nourished, bodily, emotionally and certainly for me, spiritually. Such is the joy anyone can have if they choose to cook with passion and pleasure, and to do so with others who take the same approach.