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

Making Yoghurt: A Gateway Process to Cheese-making

Back from endless travels and feasting our way through Tasmania, our normal Farmers Direct milk delivery started up again. We love the convenience of the twice-weekly delivery, which means we never run out of dairy at inopportune times. But then, the day after our big delivery, the kids were unexpectedly invited to shelter from the scorching heat for two days in their grandparents’ pool. This, of course, meant more productivity for Stuart and I, who are both working from home this year, but it also meant more milk than we knew what to do with. Or did it?

I live for the occasional milk glut, when I can make paneer, as it’s a high milk to cheese ratio (you only get a litre of cheese for four litres of milk). But Stuart mentioned yoghurt, and squeeeeee! We were away. I got the recipe from Sandor Ellix Katz’ Wild Fermentation. (I also made paneer and Stuart attempted to make mishti doi, which didn’t set, probably because he jiggled it while it was setting.)

1L full cream milk

1T fresh live-culture plain yoghurt

Heat the milk slowly in a saucepan to 82C (or just under the boil), then allow to cool to 43C (which is where you can just keep your finger in the hot milk). Mix in the tablespoon of yoghurt (I used Farmers Union Greek Style) and pour into a preheated glass jar. NB I only made 500mL due to our desire to make the other dairy delights.

Yoghurt, paneer & mishti doi on the boil
500mL into a jar

You should have pre-heated an esky (unless, like @tomatom, you have access to an Aga to keep it warm), either with jars of hot water or with hot water poured straight in. I foolishly used our large esky, which meant it took a stupid amount of water to heat it up – I used it on the garden the next day, but next time I’ll use our smaller esky and I’ll just pour the water straight in and not bother with the jars.

Yoghurt in the warm esky

Place the yoghurt in the warm esky – I kept mine pretty warm, probably around that 43C mark – and leave it for 8 to 12 hours. Don’t move it, as it likes to be quite still to set apparently.

Next thing you know, you’ve totally made yoghurt! It’s so simple, and so exciting! Mine is sourer than even our favourite Greek style, but I like it that way. I’m now so inspired I plan to try mozzarella – @littleredhen has inspired me and I’ve been watching @beeso’s cheesemaking over on the Twitterz with envy for a year now.

Yoghurt!
Fresh yoghurt on muesli with Stu'd plums

This post is also part of Fight Back Fridays over on the excellent Food Renegade site! Check out the others!

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…

Palak Paneer Kofta

The first time I went to India in 1998, I fell deeply in love with the food. As a vegetarian at the time, I delighted in the lengthy menus with a small ‘non-veg’ section at the back, and couldn’t get enough of all things palak (spinach). Two particular favourites were palak paneer and alu palak.

In the middle of our month’s travel through the north, we found ourselves stuck in Agra for an unexpected extra night (due to thick fog and a malfunctioning ILS at the Agra airport). Exhausted from long bus rides, insouciant touts, and endless transport delays, we splurged and stayed the night at a family-run guest house near the airport called New Bakshi House (and it really was a splurge at $42 for the two of us, including breakfast and a hot shower, when we were used to paying around $10 a night).

The main treat at Bakshi House, however, was not the comfortable beds or hot water, nor even the delicious home style food, but the lovely hostess, Rani, who shared her recipes with me. As I banged on about my love of palak and paneer, Rani assured me this Indian cheese was very simple to make, and gave me her recipe, as well as others for kuku, alu palak, malai kofta, ghobi, yoghurt, and another I wrote down as ‘a Chinese dish’. Although she was adamant that paneer was very simple to make, I perhaps simply wasn’t a confident enough cook yet to believe her. It in fact took me nearly a decade before I attempted to make my own.

Here is Rani’s recipe:

Paneer

Boil 1 litre milk (her sister-in-law Tina had lived in America for 17 years, so perhaps she introduced Rani to half & half , which the original recipe called for. I use raw milk.).

Add 2 tspn lemon juice.

As soon as milk curdles, remove from heat.

Put cheesecloth in sieve. Pour milk mixture through & cover lightly.

Leave 1 Β½ hours or more (you may rinse the curd at this stage if you’ve added too much lemon juice).

I think that for many years I simply didn’t trust the simplicity of this operation. Surely the paneer wouldn’t form? Trust me, it does every time, just like that. I now use ordinary full cream milk, and for a family of five I find I need to do about 3L to make enough paneer for a meal (it makes about 500g). I also usually press mine as it rests in the sieve, unless I’m making paneer koftas, since I’ll be crumbling the paneer anyway. I also save the whey, which you can use if you’re making chapatis or parathas. If not, as per @crazybrave’s suggestion recently, I simply add it to the chook scraps.

Here’s what I did with my most recent paneer, which I will usually make before lunch if I want it for dinner. This recipe is adapted from my favourite Indian cookbook, bought in Calcutta, β€œDesi Khana: The Best of Indian Vegetarian Cooking” by Tarla Dalal.

Palak Paneer Kofta

Koftas

For 500g paneer, I add about 4T plain flour, chopped coriander to taste (loads!), chopped chilies to taste, pinch of bi-carb soda and salt to taste. Form into balls and deep fry until golden brown. Rest on paper towels.

paneer koftas

Paste

Bash up (or food process) loads of garlic, pistachios or cashews, poppy seeds (not too many as they’re bitter), ginger & chili (if no children will share this meal) – all to taste, which means lots of garlic especially in our house. Tarla adds grated coconut, but when I was short of any, I actually used coconut cream & just add it after the other ingredients fried for a bit.

Chop up a giant bunch of spinach and cook it lightly with about Β½ cup of water until it’s fully wilted. Blend the spinach to a puree and set aside.

Heat ghee in a cast iron frypan and cook the paste for 3-5 minutes, until

the garlic loses its acerbity.

Add a couple of tablespoons of coconut cream and cook for another minute or two.

Add about a cup of full cream natural yoghurt and cook on lower heat for another minute or so.

Add the spinach puree, 1T raw sugar or jaggery, salt to taste and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the koftas to heat back through and serve. πŸ™‚

My kids adore this dish, as do adults. You can serve it with rice and naan or pappadums. If you make it spicy, it’s worth serving a raita as well. As for the paneer, it’s also delicious simply on its own – I have to hide it from the kids while I’m cooking or there’s never enough…

The Great Pho Party ’09

So I’m back. Hopefully this blog will come alive again now that I’m back to focusing on food and identity full time in my PhD (after a manic year off as a worker). But on to the real story…

Last weekend, to celebrate receiving a scholarship for the rest of my PhD (yay!!), I invited about 20 of my friends and family who have been through the first couple years of my part-time student/mother/worker struggles with unfunded study. Most are fellow students, all are lovely, and most also really like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). (N.B. I know I should use diacritics, but am too lazy to go copy them and paste them here, so indulge me.) I had never made pho before, though in a cooking class in Saigon I was shown the basic method for pho bo (beef pho). As the grateful recipient of a lovely big 15L stainless steel pot for last summer solstice, what better way to use it than to make pho for loads of people? Well, you’ll see that my lovely pot wasn’t as big as it seemed…

Friday morning, Stuart and I wandered dreamily through Minh Phat (Vietnamese grocery off Victoria St, Richmond) gathering crucial ingredients, then over to a fruit shop for a few missing herbs (esp. sawtooth coriander) and finally the butcher for the meat and bones. I first asked for 4kg of shin bones and was told they didn’t have any. Weird, huh? I accepted this bizarre response and asked for 4kg of flank, which I got (and realised was A LOT of meat!). I then asked for 1.5kg of topside, whereupon the woman serving me lfinally ooked quizzically at me so that I said, “I’m making pho”. She appeared quite excited about this and thrust a bag of beef balls at me, insisting I needed them too. Sure, why not? Finally, she asked me to wait, rushed out back and dragged a huge bag of bones in, pulling four out and telling me, “for you, no charge today.” I was delighted (and she clearly was too – I guess not many Anglos pop in to get ingredients for serious quantities of pho – and I think she must originally have thought I wanted their bones for a dog?), thanked her graciously, paid for the rest (only $47 for all that!) and then Stuart and I lugged our 10kg of meaty goodness back to the car and rushed home.

Dearie me, I wish I’d started the stock earlier, but I think I had extra bone, which made up for a slightly too short cooking time… so now it’s 11:30am, guests will arrive at 7pm, and this stock wants a minimum of 6 hours…

Method & Ingredients

Remember, I was cooking for 20 (and ended up serving 25, with plenty of ingredients except the rice noodles, which ran out for the last 5 of us, but I had some dried to make up the shortfall).

4kg shin bones
4kg flank, cut into pieces about 15cm long
1.5kg topside, sliced thinly
4-5 brown onions
8-12 shallots
2-3 bulbs ginger
6 cinnamon sticks
12 star anise
4 brown cardamom pods
6 cloves
1/2C salt
1/2C sugar
1/2C fish sauce (buy a good brand, which should say “Nuoc Mam Nhi” – any from Phu Quoc are great)
4kg fresh rice noodles
spring onions, finely sliced
sawtooth coriander
coriander
bean sprouts
Vietnamese basil
chilies, sliced
lemons, quartered
chili paste
hoisin
nuoc mam cham (dipping fish sauce: fish sauce, lemon, garlic, chili, sugar)

First, take your bones and soak them in warm water with lemon juice and a generous pinch of salt for about 1/2 hour. This starts to release the blood so you will get a clear stock. Then pop them into boiling water for a further 5-10 minutes, before transferring them to your stockpot full of boiling water. I put them into my 15L pot and simmered them there for about 3 hours, skimming the scum off the top frequently.

While the bones are simmering, lightly bash the cinammon, cloves, star anise and cardamom to break them into smaller pieces, then dry roast them for a few minutes in a (preferably cast iron) frypan (to release more of their oils before adding them to the stock). Put the spices into a muslin bag and drop into the stock.

Next, hold the onions, shallots and ginger over an open flame until chargrilled and set aside to cool. When cool, pull and rub the blackened skins off, cut the onions in half, and pop all of it into a muslin bag. Add these to the stock after about 2 hours.

Next, you’re going to add the flank to cook for 2-3 hours. This is when I realised I needed the bigger pot. Stuart dragged his brewing pot out for me, which is about 40L – it takes up 2 burners but does the trick. πŸ™‚ Add the salt, sugar and fish sauce now. After 2-3 hours, pull the flank back out, pop it into a baking dish with some of the stock and leave to cool.

Once the stock has been simmering for about 6 hours (you can definitely go longer – this is a minimum), pull the bones and muslin bags out and strain it through a piece of muslin into a clean pot. (I was able to put it back into the 15L pot at this stage – and I had added some water when I went into the big pot.) Did I mention that it’s very very helpful to have a second person around when you’re making this much pho? Stuart was very helpful and appreciated!

Your stock is ready! The flank should have cooled, now you can cut it into bite-sized pieces (and I removed a lot of fat whilst doing this – very happy chooks Saturday morning!). Taste the stock and adjust seasonings if you need to with salt, sugar or fish sauce. It’s also common in Vietnam to adjust with msg or ‘pork powder’ or ‘chicken powder’, which are msg-free stock powders (Knorr is a favoured brand in Saigon). I was very happy that I had no need to add any.

As guests are ready to serve, have your flank in one bowl, the topside in another, a pot of boiling water next to the stock, and your rice noodles ready to go, as well as your array of plates of herbs, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilies, and chili paste and hoisin. I used Stuart’s brewing sieve to dip the noodles into the boiling water to heat and soften them before placing them into a bowl. Next, I added the raw sliced topside, then boiling stock, then flank pieces before handing the bowl to the grateful recipient to add their own herbs, etc. Voila!

My favourite comment of the evening may have been, “I’d pay $8.50 for this” from a Vietnamese Australian friend, though I did also appreciate, “it tastes just like real pho in Saigon”, even though much of my theoretical work thus far has been contesting notions of authenticity and its instability as a category, let alone its essentialising tendencies… I guess the point is that we all agreed it was rather delish.

I think next time, though, I might cook it for just 10 people!